Falling for Zoe - by Skye Taylor, coming out this month from Bell Bridge Books.
The rumble of a diesel engine and the grinding of gears caught Jake Cameron’s attention. He looked up to see a red and white van with the familiar logo of a well known Wilmington moving company. Thankful for any diversion from the unwelcome feelings stirred up by today’s unsettling mail, Jake tossed the stack of letters onto the bench inside the garage door and stepped back outside to watch the movers.
The big van negotiated the sharp turn between the crumbling old brick gateposts guarding their little cul-de-sac and eased around the grassy little island in the center. Jake whistled in mild astonishment as it pulled to a stop in front of the once elegant Jolee homestead that squatted firmly on the rise between the road and the tidal marsh beyond. The real estate market was still agonizingly sluggish, and the neglected building had been vacant ever since the former owner had passed away. The nineteenth-century homes with antiquated everything just seemed to sit forever waiting for buyers with an interest in the unique and historic, or for investors on the lookout for cheap properties they could fix and flip.
A battered Toyota pickup truck swung around the van and pulled onto the crushed shell drive. Jake started across his lawn, intending to be neighborly and welcome the new guy on the block, whatever his plan for the place.
The person who slid out of the driver’s seat took him by surprise. She had a wild mane of reddish-gold curls and a figure to grab any man’s instant attention. Jake hesitated, waiting for a husband to appear from the passenger seat, but none did. The woman turned, saw Jake and flashed him a friendly smile.
“Hi!” the woman called in an engagingly musical voice. “Are you my new neighbor?”
Jake yanked himself out of his momentary confusion and finished covering the distance to the drive. He held out his hand. “If you’re moving into this place, then that would be a yes. Name’s Jake Cameron.”
“Nice to meet you, Jake.” Her eyes traveled down over his paint-stained T-shirt and frayed, khaki shorts and came back to his face with a curious sparkle in their greenish-brown depths that made him wonder if he’d left his fly down. “I’m Zoe Callahan.”
“Sorry, I’m kind of a mess. Been painting.” He forced himself not to check the status of his zipper as he shook her hand briefly before jamming his hands into his pockets.
She wasn’t as young as he’d first thought. Late twenties maybe, or early thirties. She was attractive in a fresh-faced, girl-next-door sort of way. What, he wondered, could have induced this engaging young woman to buy a house that was going to need an army to put it to rights?
“This time next week, I’ll be the one apologizing.” Zoe jerked her head in the direction of the house. “Everything will need painting inside and out, I’m afraid.”
“It’ll take a lot more than a coat of paint to get this place ready to put back on the market.” Jake studied the peeling paint and derelict railings more closely, reflecting on how really bad it had gotten over the months the house had been vacant.
“Oh, I don’t plan to sell it.” Zoe’s hazel eyes widened in exaggerated enthusiasm. “I’m here to stay.”
“Is . . . is there a Mr. Callahan?”
“Nope! Just me and the menagerie.”
“The menagerie?” Jake felt buffeted by the level of cheerful energy radiating off the woman.
Zoe waved her hand in the direction of the pickup truck. “Yup. Three dogs, two cats, and Polly. And the fish, of course. The dogs are mine. I inherited the rest when my siblings moved out and left them behind. All except Polly. She was Michael’s but his wife refused to have her around after they were married.”
Jake felt like taking a step backwards. “Wow!” he said weakly, trying to imagine the chaotic atmosphere her menagerie brought with them. Was Polly what it sounded like? He gestured vaguely in the direction of the run-down mansion. “So, you made of money, or what?”
Zoe frowned. “Made of money?”
Jake belatedly realized that his comment was both rude and intrusive, although he hadn’t meant it that way. “Just . . . it’s going to take a ton of money to fix this place up. If there’s no Mr. Callahan . . .”
Zoe’s finely arched brows peaked into a challenge.
Now he was being politically incorrect. Nice way to impress the new neighbor, Cameron!
“You think just because I’m a woman, I can’t handle it?”
“Well, no, ma’am. I . . . ” Jake fumbled. If he was honest, that was exactly what he’d been thinking. It was a beautiful place. Old, rambling and unique, but it had been left untended for far too long. “It’s just that it needs a lot of work.”
“You sound like my father.” Zoe flipped her hand dismissively.
Sounding like Zoe’s father was clearly not a compliment.
“Sorry,” Jake muttered, mentally chastising himself. The woman definitely had spunk. “It’s really a grand old place. Lots of history. Solidly built. Back when houses were built to last for generations. Here—” He reached for his wallet and dug out a business card. “Maybe you’re already in the business, but if not, I’m in construction. I’d be glad to check it out for you. Give you some estimates. Make sure there aren’t any serious problems you’ll need to address right off. I can steer you in the direction of some good craftsmen. Might even be able help out myself on some of the stuff.”
That’s nice! Really nice. Like I don’t have enough to keep me busy as it is? Yet, even as the warning flashed into his head, his fingers relinquished the card.
Something about Ms. Zoe Callahan had grabbed his attention the moment she’d slid from the truck, and wouldn’t let go. She wasn’t beautiful, at least not in the classic sense. Nor did she appear to be the kind of siren who would be all over his brand new return to bachelorhood. Maybe it was the way her lips turned up at the corners as if she found life amusing and dared everyone else to join her. Or perhaps it was the challenge in her peaked brows, when Jake had questioned her intentions for the classic old home.
What was he thinking? Didn’t he already have a houseful of women who tested his peace and sanity? On a daily basis! Had he really just volunteered to add another?
Zoe studied the card then stuck it in her pocket. “Thanks. I just might have to take you up on it. I’m new at the whole home-owner thing.”
“Hey! Ms. Callahan! You need to get inside and tell the guys where you want things put.” The driver of the van approached with a clipboard in one hand. “And I need your check for the balance due, Ma’am.”
Before Zoe could turn away, Jake opened his mouth. “You have any plans for supper? You haven’t even unpacked yet, and you probably haven’t shopped for any groceries, and you’re bound to be hungry.” He was babbling, and he must sound like an idiot. But her kitchen wouldn’t be ready to cook in until sometime tomorrow at the earliest. There was always room for one more at his table.
Zoe’s mouth stretched into an engaging smile that warmed him right down to his toes and rewarded him for his impulsive offer. “That would be wonderful. What time?”
“Sixish sound okay?”
“Six is great. Any meal I don’t have to prepare myself sounds heavenly.” Zoe flashed him another captivating grin and turned back to the van driver.
What have I done? Jake shook his head in disbelief. The last thing I need is another female in my already crazy life no matter how cute she is. That place is going to need a mountain of fixing up. Jake had the sudden, uneasy conviction that Zoe Callahan’s arrival in his life was going to turn out to be even more unsettling than the arrival of today’s mail.