“Is that our new house, Mommy?”
Meredith Price might have sat in her sporty SUV, strangling the steering wheel with white-knuckled fingers, until the sun went down if not for the tiny voice from the back seat.
“Yes, honey.” She killed the engine and unfastened her seat belt. Knowing that was the signal they were getting out of the car, the small white dog that had been napping next to Sophie leaped between the seats and into her lap.
Meredith hadn’t done the math, but she was pretty sure their new home was smaller than the garage area of the six-thousand-square-foot home they’d left behind. “It’s the perfect size for the two of us.”
Oscar yipped, as if to remind her there were three members of the Price family, and she tried to keep the fluffy bichon frise still long enough to clip his leash onto his collar. “Be still, Oscar.”
“I want to get out,” her daughter whined.
“Hold on a second, Sophie. We can’t open the doors until Oscar’s leash is on.” She heard the frustration in her voice and took a long, slow breath. “Wait for me to open your door, okay?”
She couldn’t blame either of them for being anxious to get out of the car. The road trip from California to New Hampshire had been too much for a six-year-old and an energetic dog, even with more stops than Meredith had planned for.
Flying out and paying to have the car shipped probably would have made more sense, but driving cross-country had seemed like a grand adventure at the time. It had been an adventure, all right, though grand probably wasn’t the word she’d use for it.
Once she’d managed to get Oscar on the leash, she stepped out of the car and set the little dog on the ground. He immediately sprinted to the grass and lifted his leg, and Meredith heard the car door slam as Sophie got out. Within seconds, her daughter’s hand was tucked in hers as they both stared at their new home.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?”
Forcing her expression to relax into a smile, she looked down at the sweet face that was a younger version of her own. They had the same long, thick dark blond hair and oval faces with noses that were just a little too small. “Nothing, honey. I’m just tired because that was a very long drive.”
“You look scared.”
“I’m not scared, silly.” She lied to her daughter because it was easier than admitting the truth.
Scared might be a strong word, but the anxiety and doubt that had been her constant companion since leaving San Diego only intensified as they walked to the front door.
The home she’d bought from three thousand miles away based on nothing but a video tour, her gut instinct and hazy, warm memories of growing up happy in Blackberry Bay, New Hampshire.
She punched the code the real estate agent had given her into the keypad next to the door. When the lock disengaged, she took another deep breath—they never really helped—and turned the handle.
Sophie bolted inside and, as soon as the door was closed and Meredith unclipped his leash, Oscar scrambled after her.
Meredith leaned against the closed door and breathed in the light scent of citrus, probably from whatever the cleaning service had used, and allowed herself to savor this moment.
This was the place she’d chosen to start over. Only four years old, the house was a small, single-story contemporary that was totally open concept except for the two bedrooms on the end, with a bathroom between them. The cream walls, hardwood floors and high-end finishes aligned perfectly with her taste, and because it was meant to be a summer getaway, it was furnished for comfort, with an overstuffed sofa and chairs in a pale blue.
The previous owners hadn’t wanted to deal with emptying out what had been a third home for them, so Meredith had been able to negotiate a turnkey price that included all the furnishings, right down to the comforters the owners had chosen to complement the bedroom wall colors—though she’d brought new sheets with her. She’d had her hands full with the San Diego house and had been happy to avoid having to choose between picking out furniture for a house three thousand miles away or waiting until they arrived.
It hadn’t been all practicality on her part, though. As soon as she’d clicked on the listing, she’d been interested in the house, but it was the interior shots that had her making an offer. The existing decor was all about peace and relaxation and light, and she’d fallen in love instantly.
It wouldn’t be a summer getaway for her and Sophie, though. It would be their home, and judging from Sophie’s excited chattering to Oscar, she’d chosen well.
“Wait,” she called when she spotted her daughter reaching for the handle of the sliding door leading out to the deck. “Oscar needs to be on his leash before you open any doors.”
Sophie was practically dancing in anticipation as she waited, and Meredith grinned at her before clipping Oscar’s leash on and pulling open the sliding glass door. This was the most animated she’d seen her daughter since Devin had died in a car accident two years ago, leaving her without a husband and Sophie without her beloved Daddy.
Meredith took in the expanse of water before her and it felt like a healing balm for her soul. Blackberry Bay was an offshoot from Lake Winnipesaukee, and it was just the right size for lake life, without the big, fast boats. There was a canoe off to her left, and to the right she could make out a group of stand-up paddleboarders.
She mentally added buying a small paddleboat to her list of things to maybe do. Devin had left them more than comfortable, plus the sale of their home had bought this house and its furnishings with quite a lot left over, so it would be many years before she had to worry about money if she was smart. And part of being smart was establishing a budget, even if one wasn’t technically necessary.
Eventually, once school had started and they were settled in, Meredith would figure out how she wanted to fill her days. She didn’t have to work, but she knew by then she’d want to, plus it would leave the majority of their accounts and investments untouched, except for the bigger expenses. Lakefront properties came with hefty tax bills, for one thing.
But it was worth it. The deck was made of a composite material that looked like wood, but wouldn’t splinter or peel. It spanned the width of the house and extended far enough out to have a patio set and a grill along with the built-in storage seating benches.
The stairs led down to the yard, which wasn’t big, but it had beautiful grass and sloped gently to a short strip of sand at the water’s edge. A wooden dock extended out into the lake, and at the end was a covered swinging love seat. Wildflowers had been planted around the dock, which Meredith hadn’t noticed in the photos and videos from the real estate agent.
As surprises in buying a house sight unseen went, unexpected flowers were definitely a good one.
“Be careful,” she called to Sophie, who had picked Oscar up and walked onto the dock.
Her daughter was a good swimmer, but the dog wasn’t. And now that they’d be living on the water instead of visiting it, they’d have to have a serious discussion about water safety.
“Who are you?’ she heard Sophie ask, and Meredith’s head jerked up from the flower bed she’d been bent over.
A man was standing in the next yard, and he startled her enough so she didn’t chide Sophie for being rude. It was a valid question.
“I’m Cam,” he said in a deep voice that matched his outside. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with dark hair and the kind of scruffy jaw that said the beard wasn’t deliberate, but more a result of not bothering to shave for a few days. And, while he was wearing jeans and loafers, he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Judging by the pinkish cast to his light tan, shirtless wasn’t his usual state of attire. “Who are you?”
“Sophie. This is my new house. And this is my dog. His name is Oscar.”
“Hello,” Meredith said, drawing the stranger’s attention to her before Sophie could spill any more details.
“Hi.” He looked at her, and he was close enough so she could see the bright blue of his eyes. “In keeping with the theme, who are you?”
“My name is Meredith. Are you…a groundskeeper of some sort?”
It seemed like a legitimate question—working outside might explain why he wasn’t wearing a shirt when it wasn’t even hot—so she was surprised when he laughed. And even more surprised when she caught herself smiling because he had a great laugh.
“I’m not the lawn guy. I’m staying here for the summer.”
Meredith shook her head in confusion. “You’re renting this cottage?”
Unlike the old cottages that had been torn down to make way for the newer, much more expensive models, the summer home next door was original. And very colorful, if a little shabby.
The old clapboard siding was painted a pale pink and the trim was turquoise. The crooked window boxes, some of which had plastic flowers and little whirligigs in them, offered pops of color. It was essentially the total opposite of Meredith’s sleek, white cedar-sided contemporary.
“No, I’m not renting it. It’s mine.”
“The real estate agent told me Mrs. Archambault lived next door.” Despite having only vague memories of the older woman, she had been one of the reasons Meredith had chosen this house over two others. She wanted Sophie to learn to bond with people, and a grandmotherly neighbor would have been a good start.
His expression closed off. “She doesn’t live here anymore.”
Cam Maguire wasn’t sure what to make of finding a beautiful woman, a little girl and a tiny bit of fluff that he was pretty sure was a dog in the yard when he went outside to look for his grandmother’s cat.
He’d heard all the jokes about cats being real jerks and secretly plotting the demise of the humans who cared for them. He used to laugh at those jokes.
He didn’t laugh anymore.
“I don’t understand,” the woman—Meredith, she’d said her name was—said and he realized she was still confused about why he was living next door to her.
“The woman who lived here, Carolina Archambault, was my grandmother and she passed away recently. I guess it must have been after you talked to your real estate agent about the neighbors.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” he said, because it was the right thing to say. And he did feel a sense of loss.
It was his loss that he’d never met the woman who was his biological paternal grandmother and who had lived in this eccentric and colorful cottage by the lake.
“There you are,” he said to the extremely large and very long-haired black cat who sauntered into the yard as if she hadn’t disappeared for four hours to who knew where. And she had burrs in her tail again. Getting those things out of her fur made him wish he’d been a hockey goalie in college so he’d have the proper safety equipment for the job. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Elinor—which was a ridiculous name for a cat, if you asked him—ignored him as expected and walked onto the neighbor’s grass as if she owned it.
The little girl had left the dock and was exploring the yard with her dog, its leash clutched in her little hand. The dog watched the cat warily, but appeared to be smart enough not to mess with her. And Sophie was a cute kid, with long brownish-blond hair like her mother. They looked a lot alike, actually, right down to their serious expressions.
“I’d offer to give you tips on living in Blackberry Bay,” he said, “but I haven’t been here very long.”
“I’m from here, actually. I’ve been in California for years, so it might have changed a little, but I’m guessing not very much.”
“What brings you back?” He instantly regretted asking the question when sadness flitted across her pretty face and settled in the tautness of her mouth.
“My husband passed away a couple of years ago and I decided Sophie and I would be happier here, near my parents. And I have some pretty fond memories of the town, too.”
As her words sank in, he looked back to the little girl, trying to imagine how devastating it must have been for her to lose her daddy at such a young age. And how much harder the grieving process must have been for Meredith because she had to get Sophie through it. He’d never suffered that kind of loss, but imagining their sorrow hit him in the gut.
“I’m sorry about your husband,” he said sincerely as he looked back to Meredith.
“Thank you.” She gave him a tight smile. “So you’re staying for the summer, you said? Where do you usually live?”
“New York City, actually.”
Her hazel eyes widened. “Wow. That’s quite a change in pace.”
“It is, but I was ready to get away for a while.”
“What do you do in the city?”
“I work for my dad,” he said, which wasn’t technically a lie, but wasn’t entirely accurate, either. “A lot of accounting and paperwork and boring stuff like that.”
She was cute when she wrinkled her nose. “I’m not a fan of boring math-related paperwork.”
A yelp from across the yard caught her attention and she turned to see Elinor swipe at the white puffball. Sophie was frowning and picked the dog up, turning her body so the cat couldn’t see him anymore.
“Your cat appears to be bullying my dog.”
“She’s not my cat. And you’re embarrassing your dog by even making that claim right now.”
She arched an eyebrow at him. “If you don’t think cats can bully dogs, you don’t spend a lot of time on the internet.”
“She just wants the dog to know who’s boss, I guess.”
“It’s his yard,” she pointed out.
“She’s a cat.”
“Point taken.” A genuine smile lit her up face and made her eyes crinkle. “They’ll get used to each other. And speaking of that, now that I know you’re going to be my neighbor for a while, I should probably introduce myself properly. I’m Meredith Price, and that’s Sophie and Oscar.”
“Calvin Maguire,” he said, extending his hand. “But everybody calls me Cam.”
As she shook his hand, he noted how soft the skin was and had to resist rubbing his thumb over it.
She tilted her head as she smoothly pulled her hand away from his. “How do you get Cam from Calvin?”
“My initials. Calvin Anthony Maguire.” His mouth twisted in a wry smile. “The fourth.”
“It was a better alternative than being Little Cal for my entire life.” He didn’t really want to open himself up to more questions about his family, since they were the last thing he wanted to talk about. “Since Oscar’s from California, let me guess. Oscar de la Renta?”
She laughed. “Oscar the Grouch.”
“You’re kidding.” He looked at the dog again, who looked like the kind they put on the packaging of fancy dog food. “I don’t really see the resemblance, but maybe it’s a personality thing.”
“He’s actually named after Sophie’s favorite book at the time, and trust me, we spent days explaining to her why we couldn’t make his hair green.”
“He doesn’t bark a lot, does he?”
“I wouldn’t say he barks a lot.” She glanced at the dog before giving him a sheepish look. “It’s more like a really high-pitched yip.”
“That’ll be fun while I’m reading over spreadsheets,” he said, picturing spending his summer being harassed by a stubborn cat and a high-strung dog. “Maybe I should have packed my noise-canceling headphones.”
She looked startled for a second and then her eyes narrowed. “I have a child and a dog, so I guess you’ll just have to figure out how to make it work.”
“Maybe a muzzle?” he asked, but he wasn’t really serious. Yipping dogs weren’t his favorite, but he wasn’t a total jerk.
She stared at him for a long moment before giving him an arch look. “I don’t know if I can find one in your size, but I can try.”
Cam chuckled, appreciating her comeback, but she didn’t even crack a smile. Maybe she hadn’t been joking. And maybe she’d thought he wasn’t, either.
“If you’ll excuse me, we just arrived and I have a lot to do.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said as she walked, and she held up her hand in what looked more like a dismissive gesture than a wave.
That was fine. If she wanted to play that game, she’d find out he didn’t really care that much. She and her yipping dog could stay in her yard and he’d stay in his.
He had better things to do, anyway. Like learning more about Carolina Archambault, and figuring out how to convince her cat he was the boss.