Chapter One



“NO, NO, oh sweet Jesus, no! Astrid, get back here!”

A blur of orange streaked out the open front door and, his arms full of grocery bags, David Waterman could only watch helplessly as his orange tabby raced down the walkway, came face-to-face with Mrs. Pettifer’s shih tzu, and promptly scrambled up the nearest tree.

Which happened to be the twenty-foot maple on his front lawn he’d admired when he’d moved into the house three weeks ago.

It wasn’t very admirable right now.

“Oh dear,” said the tiny woman.

With a sigh, David set his bags down on the front stoop and turned to face her. His gaze traveled from her purple nylon tracksuit, down the hot pink leash, over to the still-barking, pink-bow-wearing terror, and all the way up the tree trunk to find Astrid perched on the fourth branch from the top, approximately thirteen feet off the ground. As David watched, the volume of barks increased and, with a glance at the dog, Astrid moved up another branch.

So, fifteen feet.

David pinched the bridge of his nose briefly, then turned to Mrs. Pettifer with a strained smile. “Mrs. Pettifer, why don’t you and Mitzy continue your morning walk?”

“Oh! But, David dear, your poor kitty!” She fluttered her fingers in the direction of the tree. “What was her name again? Heloise? Francine?”

A genuine smile, however unbidden, crept onto David’s face. “Astrid, Mrs. Pettifer. Astrid.” Brushing his light brown hair out of his eyes, David squinted up at Astrid, who still watched Mitzy with an unblinking stare. “And I think she’s a little more terrified with Mitzy around than she’d be without.”

Mrs. Pettifer raised a hand to her cheek and glanced between the two furry enemies. “Oh my, you could be right. But how in the world will you get her down?”

At that moment, a low chuckle rumbled from behind David, and immediately, the barking stopped as Mitzy swiveled her bow-bedecked head to take in the newcomer.

David bit his lip.

What a way to meet the new neighbor.

“Everything okay over there?” The low chuckle was accompanied by a rich baritone voice that sent shivers down David’s spine. He slowly turned and found Mr. Blue House crossing the lawn between their two homes. Mr. Blue House wore charcoal gray sweatpants low on his hips, and his chest was broad beneath a rumpled white T-shirt that looked like it had been hastily thrown on. His flat abdomen and trim waist had David unconsciously sucking in his own slightly rounded belly. The brown hair cut close to his neighbor’s head appeared somewhat sleep-ruffled, and he wore a curious grin as he approached their little group.

David swallowed hard.

He’d caught glimpses of Mr. Blue House in passing over the last few weeks, but Mr. Blue House was around at odd hours of the day or away for long stretches of time. In fact, this was the first time David had seen him up close. He had some silver at his temples, and the creases around his eyes suggested a quickness to laughter and perhaps a few more years of age than David’s own thirty-six. As he walked closer, though, his fit physique and strong features clearly proclaimed Mr. Blue House to be a handsome man.

“Hi, I’m Zach Ford.”

David shook himself out of his reverie and reached for the tanned hand. Warmth from the skin-on-skin contact made him clear his throat awkwardly. “Hello. Um, David. David Waterman,” he said finally, mustering up a smile.

“Pleasure, David. I’ve seen you around, but allow me to officially welcome you to Peachcorn Avenue,” Mr. Blue House—Zach—said with a friendly smile before he turned to nod at Mrs. Pettifer and Mitzy. “Mrs. Pettifer. Mitzy. Now, what kind of mischief have you all gotten yourselves into?” he scolded playfully, a teasing glint in his eye.

“Oh, Zachary, thank goodness you’re here! David’s poor kitty Millicent—”

“Astrid,” David murmured under his breath. Zach sent him an amused look.

“Well, she skittered right up that tree when she saw dear little Mitzy.” Mrs. Pettifer gestured toward the maple and the slightly visible fluff of orange fur bulging around the branch on which Astrid was perched. “It’s quite a pickle, but now that you’re here, it’s sure to be fine.”

“Hrmm, a pickle is right.” Zach looked up at the cat, and then turned to David, who was still puzzling over Mrs. Pettifer’s last comment. “And here I thought I’d have the day off,” Zach said with a quirk of his lips.

Even more confused now, David could only watch when Zach told them to wait there for a second, then turned back to open his garage. When he emerged hauling a twenty-foot extension ladder, David sprang into action and rushed forward, hands outstretched.

“Oh! Mr. Ford—Zach, I don’t think you should do that. It doesn’t look at all safe.” Clearly ignoring David’s words, Zach proceeded to carry the ladder past them. “I-I can just wait for Astrid to come down. I mean, she has to… eventually….” David trailed off when Zach finished setting up the ladder against the trunk of the tree, then bent to tie the loose shoelaces on his sneakers.

“Oh, it’s okay, dear,” Mrs. Pettifer said confidently, patting David’s hand. “He’s a professional.”

“That’s right, ma’am,” Zach said as he straightened, then tipped an imaginary hat at them. With a quick wink at David, he added, “Don’t try this at home.”

David gaped when Zach turned at that moment and climbed the ladder with sure steps. Zach reached Astrid’s branch, and David watched anxiously, wincing when a paw darted out and took a swipe at Zach. After a few tense moments, David was able to breathe more easily when it was clear Zach had begun a slow descent with the cat tucked into the crook of his elbow.

“There you go,” Zach said once he reached firm ground again. He turned toward their group with a good-natured grin, two of his thick fingers scratching the top of Astrid’s forehead. “Right as rain with no need to camp out and wait for the princess to come down on her own.”

“I-I don’t know what to say. Thank you,” David stammered as he took hold of Astrid’s pleasantly plump body. David’s eyes went wide when Zach drew his arms away in the transfer, revealing thin stripes of angry red on his forearm. “Oh God, are you all right?”

“Hardly feel it,” Zach scoffed. “Nothing I haven’t handled before, anyway.”

“Oh, Zachary, you were wonderful! Wait till I tell the ladies at bridge,” Mrs. Pettifer exclaimed excitedly. She looked between Zach and David for a moment, and her smile grew wider. “I’ll see you boys around.”

“You have a nice one, Mrs. Pettifer,” Zach said.

“Have a good walk,” David echoed, as the little lady and her dog continued down the street. He turned to Zach and tightened his hold on Astrid when she began to squirm. “I-I better get her inside before she makes another break for it. Thank you so much. You really didn’t have to, you know.” David glanced at Zach’s scratches and grimaced. “Are you sure those are okay? I have some Neosporin in the house somewhere.”

“I’ll just wash it off inside. Nothing to worry yourself over,” Zach said with an easy smile.

“Well, thank you, then,” David said shyly, returning the smile. “Thank you so very much for braving my little terror.”

Zach chuckled. “You’re very welcome. I’ll see you around, David Waterman,” Zach said, nodding. He moved to grab the ladder, and David turned toward his door. As he carefully walked back with his furry burden, David was reminded of something.

“Oh, hey! Zach!” David called over from his front porch.

Zach stopped with the ladder halfway inside the garage. “Yeah?”

“What did she mean by ‘professional’?”

Zach flashed a grin. “Zachary Ford of Station 18, Ladder 3, at your service.”

David’s eyes widened, and he watched as Zach gave him another quick smile and made his way back into his garage.

A firefighter.

Suddenly, the odd hours and fitness at middle age made so much more sense.