December 12, 2023
A millionaire and a woman who thinks he’s a house flipper are stuck living in a house together with a menagerie of rescue dogs as roommates, in this heartfelt romantic comedy from New York Times bestselling author Jaci Burton.
After her ex took all their money and bailed, Hazel Bristow is left broke and homeless. A kind friend whose home is on the market lets Hazel and her foster dogs stay there until it sells. It’s the perfect setup, until her friend forgets to tell Hazel she’s sold the house.
Linc Kennedy is shocked to find Hazel and her pups squatting in the house he just bought, but after some negotiating—she offers to cook amazing meals for him in return for a paycheck—he agrees to let her remain while he’s renovating the place. Linc tells Hazel he’s an investor who renovates homes for fun—he just leaves out the part about being wealthy.
Hazel’s intrigued by Linc. He’s funny, sweet, ridiculously hot, and loves dogs almost as much as she does. But her track record with men? Not great. She worries her trust meter isn’t in working order.
Linc’s never met anyone like the quirky beauty who puts everyone’s needs—human and canine—before her own. He didn’t tell her about his wealth because he’s been burned by women who only wanted him for his money. But with Hazel, he’s never felt more like himself. Now he has to figure out how to tell her the truth without losing her. Because Linc realizes what he feels for her isn’t puppy love—it’s true love.
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Hazel Bristow lined up all her babies, preparing them for their early-evening walk. Today she waited until almost dark because even though it was late summer in Orlando, it was still muggy, and just chasing after these hellions all day inside was a sweat-inducing activity, let alone taking them on a long walk.
Of course as soon as she dragged the harnesses and leashes out, there were excited tail wags and butt wiggles. Even from Gordon the pug, who at twelve years old couldn’t make it more than two blocks but gave it his best effort. Which was why she always brought the stroller along.
She got all five dogs hooked up and prepped the stroller, and they were out the door, Lilith the Chihuahua leading the way, even though she was the smallest of the pack. But Penelope the golden retriever was too busy sniffing every blade of grass in the front yard, and Freddie the dachshund had to pee on every bush they passed, and they hadn’t even gotten off the property before Boo the pit mix parked his butt at the end of the driveway, refusing to go any farther.
“What’s wrong, Boo?”
He looked up at her with his sad eyes, pulling on the leash to head back toward the house. She frowned and studied him, trying to figure out what the issue was. Then it hit her.
“Oh, right.” She looped the leashes around the stroller, knowing they wouldn’t go anywhere without her. “I’ll be back in a sec, kids.”
She dashed inside and found Boo’s stuffed bear by the front door. She grabbed it and hurried back outside to find all five dogs waiting ever so patiently for her, though Lilith looked like she was ready to bolt any second and take the rest of them on the walk by herself.
“I’m so sorry for the delay, Lilith. We can go now.”
She handed Boo his bear. He gently took it in his mouth, and now they were ready to roll.
The dogs always started out at a brisk pace, especially Boo, who was the youngest and full of energy. Which suited her just fine, too. Even with the heat, she enjoyed walking.
She loved this neighborhood with its nice homes and amazing trees in every yard. It had always felt friendly and homey to her. She was so grateful to her friend Ginger for letting her crash here, even though the house was currently for sale. And empty. But it was a roof over her and the dogs’ heads, and she’d find something else soon. She’d promised her friend it would only be a short stay, and she’d keep the place superclean, which she had. And since Ginger and Greg had already moved out, Hazel felt like she was providing a service by keeping an eye on the place.
Plus, Hazel didn’t have a lot of stuff, so it was easy enough to pack up and vacate whenever Ginger alerted her that the real estate agent was coming by to do a showing. Fortunately—or maybe unfortunately for Ginger, there hadn’t been any activity for the past few weeks. Which had worked out well for Hazel, though she knew she was going to have to find another place to live soon. But right now? It was awesome, and she liked to imagine she and the dogs actually lived in the house.
As was typical, Gordon’s tongue started hanging out after about fifteen minutes, so she scooped him up and placed him in the stroller, where he promptly turned in a circle, curled up, and went to sleep. The rest of the dogs kept up the pace, though after thirty minutes she could tell they were hot and ready to head for home. So was she.
They made their way back to the house, and she unhooked the dogs from their harnesses. Everyone ran for their water bowls to hydrate while Hazel put everything away, then she went to the fridge for the pitcher of water, pouring herself a glass. She drank the entire thing, breathing out a relieved sigh when she finished it. She washed and dried the glass and put it away just in case someone wanted to come look at the house. She never left dirty dishes or anything lying out, because just packing up the dogs and their things made it enough of a rush to get out.
Not that she had much.
She changed into her swimsuit, then opened the back door and all the dogs ran outside.
The best thing about this house was the pool. It was screened in to keep the bugs out, an important thing in Florida, so she could swim anytime of the day or night. It was also great therapy for Gordon, whose arthritis had gotten bad in the past year.
She grabbed his swim harness and put it on him, smiling as his tail swept back and forth.
“You ready for a little dip, baby?” she asked as she walked over to the steps and waded into the pool.
Gordon followed her to the side of the pool. She reached for him, and his short legs were already pumping before she set him in the water. She walked around the shallow end, letting him swim while she held on to the harness for support.
“You like the water, don’t you, Gordon?”
Gordon didn’t answer, of course, but she could tell from his goofy pug smile that he loved it. Because when Gordon didn’t love something, he let you know with lots of grunts and whines.
So did Boo, who jumped into the deep end and swam around for a while before making his way to the steps. He got out, shook the water off, and lay down under one of the shade trees.
“You’ve got to have some Labrador in you, Boo. You just love your swims.”
Boo rolled over on his back, stuck his feet up in the air, and went to sleep, ignoring her praise.
Typical. She continued to enjoy the cool water, though at times she wished she could swim laps. Sometimes she did, late at night, after the dogs were all asleep. She’d come out here and slice through the water, remembering the times she’d have a late-night swim in her own pool, at her own house, enjoying that quiet. Before her marriage went to hell and she lost everything.
Well, there was no point in reliving the past, was there? That part of her life was over. There was only now, and now was pretty great.
Temporarily great, anyway. This wasn’t her home.
Not wanting to overtire Gordon, Hazel kept track of the time. Gordon would spend all of his time in the water if he could.
The other dogs would swim on occasion, but not every day, preferring the copious amounts of shade over in the grassy area of the yard. And it was getting late, so she scooped Gordon into her arms, unzipped him from his harness, and placed him on the ground, letting him shake off the water. Of course he’d dry in no time, so she grabbed a towel and dried herself off, put on her T-shirt, and headed into the house to get dinner ready for the dogs.
They all followed, knowing the routine.
She stood at the kitchen island, prepping their food, the dogs sitting and waiting patiently nearby. All bets were off once she set the bowls down and told them to eat. Then it was slurping and crunching and Hazel should probably think about making her own dinner.
Except she needed to make a plan. She had the foster dogs, and the agencies she worked with paid for their medical care and provided a stipend for their food, which was great. But as far as income? She had mostly . . . Okay, she had nothing. And that wasn’t going to put a roof over her head and gas in the car.
She took odd jobs here and there to pay the bills, but long term it wasn’t ideal. And she was dipping into her meager savings more than she wanted to.
She sat on the fold-up chair and watched the dogs eat, realizing she was going to have to come up with something more permanent and soon. Living day-to-day and sometimes hour to hour just wasn’t cutting it.
For her or for her dogs.
Lincoln Kennedy pulled into the driveway of his next project, a nice four-bedroom in a prime location in Orlando. He turned the engine off in his truck and wished it was still daylight so he could take a look at the outside of the house, but that would have to wait until morning.
What a shit day. Shit month, actually. He gripped the steering wheel, wishing he’d had time to take a long vacation to somewhere tropical and shake off the dregs of his breakup with Stefanie.
It had all boiled down to the money. His money. Once Stefanie had found out how much he had, she’d changed. He thought the two of them had a chance at something, but she’d turned out to be no different than any other woman he’d ever had a relationship with. He’d been judged by his wallet, and once a woman found out his was fat, she saw him differently. Wanted things from him. Planned a future based on his income.
So he’d ended it, just like he’d ended all his other relationships.
Whatever. Girlfriends were too much trouble. And he needed to get to work.
He grabbed his bag and the keys that the Realtor had overnighted to him and walked to the front door, then slipped the keys in the lock, noting the lockbox was still on the door. He made a mental note to contact the agent in the morning so it could be removed.
As he opened the door, he yawned. The flight from San Francisco to Orlando had been long and exhausting, but such was the nature of his business. Not that he was complaining since he loved the travel, and he was excited to start this new project. At least this would give him something to get jazzed about.
He dropped his bag at the front door, then paused, certain he’d heard a noise. He waited a few beats listening for anything else that didn’t seem right. When he didn’t hear another sound he headed straight to the kitchen.
From the photos he’d seen of the place, he knew that’s where he’d need to do the most work, so he might as well take a look.
He was about to hit the light switch when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Something was headed toward him, and he caught whatever it was in mid swing, his heart pumping triple time as he figured he was about to get blasted on the head by a tire iron on something equally skull smashing. In what felt like hours but in reality was probably only a few seconds, he had the offending weapon in one hand and the intruder wrapped around him in the other.
“Hey, hold on there,” he said, realizing whoever it was trying to kill him was a lot smaller than him. And lighter, since he’d grabbed his or her arm and their weapon, which was a . . .
He held the squirming burglar against his chest and leaned back to fumble around the wall for the light switch. He hit the switch with his elbow, which bathed the kitchen with light.
Okay, this was unexpected. He quickly let go of the intruder, and they made a hasty retreat to the other side of the room.
Linc had figured maybe a teen, or a small man. But never in a million years did he figure he’d come face-to-face with a gorgeous woman dressed only in a T-shirt and underwear, along with glaring sets of eyes directed at him. He quickly counted—
Five dogs. And they hadn’t even barked.
“What the hell’s going on here?” he asked. “What are you doing in here?”
She tugged the T-shirt over her flowered cotton panties. “I think I should be the one asking the questions here, since you just broke in.”
He shook his head. “No, I own this place.”
“You do not. I’m friends with the owner.”
“You mean the former owner. I closed on this house three days ago.”
She frowned. “Prove it.”
He frowned. “You prove it. Who’s the owner of this place?” He wasn’t about to give her a lead.
“Ginger and Greg—”
“Powell,” he finished for her.
Her eyes widened. “They sold the house?”
She lifted her chin, a defiant look on her face. “I don’t believe you.”
Now that his heart rate had come down to a more manageable level, he could think a little more clearly. And since whoever this woman was seemed to know the former owners, she was likely scared, too. Which was so not his problem since she was the one squatting in his house. “You should call her. Now.”
She grabbed her phone off the corner of the peninsula while she eyed him warily. She pressed a button and waited.
“Ginger. It’s Hazel. I’m at your house and some guy just came in and said he bought the place.”
She listened, still staring at him.
“It’s okay. I just didn’t know. I would have left if I’d known.”
She listened some more.
“I’m fine, honestly. Nothing happened other than both of us scaring the hell out of each other.”
Then she laughed, and it was such an amazing sound. Light and easy.
He didn’t care how she sounded. Why would he care? His first objective needed to be getting her the hell out of there.
“Yeah, I don’t think either of us would want to see pics of what just happened. But we’re both okay. No harm, no foul.”
Linc motioned to her. “Mind if I have the phone for a second?”
She hesitated. “Uh, Ginger? He wants to talk to you.”
She listened, then gave him the phone. He put it on speaker and laid it on the counter. “Hey, Ginger, how’s it going?”
“Linc. I am so embarrassed. For some reason I had it down that you weren’t coming in until next month. And then with our move and everything going on, I totally spaced and forgot to tell Hazel that the house had sold. This is all my fault. I’m so sorry to both of you for this.”
Linc looked over at the woman, who still had her arms wrapped around herself but seemed a lot less terrified than she had a few minutes ago.
“Hey, it’s okay. We both survived the scare. Is Greg there?”
“Oh, he’s here, trying not to laugh.”
“I wasn’t laughing,” Greg said. “Glad you didn’t get arrested, bud.”
He saw Hazel cock her head to the side. “Greg and I know each other.”
“I’m so sorry, Hazel,” Ginger said.
“Me, too,” Greg said. “But it’s still Ginger’s fault.”
“Hey, you could have called Hazel, too,” Ginger said.
“I could have. My bad.”
“It’s all good,” Hazel said. “Love you guys.”
“I’ll call you after this project, Greg,” Linc said, “and we’ll get together for a round.”
“You got it,” Greg said.
Hazel clicked off. “Okay, apparently you’re legit. Ginger didn’t tell me. She told me she’d let me know when they accepted an offer so I could clear out before the new owner arrived. I guess that’s you.”
“And I guess you’re not a burglar.”
She slanted a look at him. “Do I look like a burglar?”
He gave her the once-over, from her wildly tousled dark hair to her tanned bare legs. “Not any burglar I could ever imagine.”
“Do you mind if I put some pants on before we continue this conversation?”
Actually, he did mind. She had amazing legs. “Sure, go ahead. And while you’re at it, you can pack up whatever things you have so you can leave.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, right. Sure. I can do that. Sorry.”
The look on her face was one of utter dejection. Linc would not feel sorry for her. She wasn’t his responsibility, and he had things to do to this house that did not include a woman and five dogs.
“Come on, babies,” she said, and just like that, her dog entourage followed behind, but he could swear that little beige Chihuahua gave him a dirty look before leaving the room.
Finally, Linc had a chance to exhale. And put the skillet on the stove.
The woman—Hazel—was talking upstairs. He should follow and make sure she didn’t do any damage. And while she might be friends of Ginger and Greg, she wasn’t his friend. In fact, he didn’t know her at all. He’d known of squatters who kicked in drywall or did any number of things to screw up property before running off. He had his investment to protect, so he quietly made his way up the steps, stopping in the hallway when he heard the sound of her voice just inside the bedroom.
“It’s okay, babies,” she said, her voice low and trembling. “We’ll figure something out. We always do, don’t we?”
He peeked his head inside the door to see a blow-up mattress and an oversize backpack. Was that all she had? She’d put on a pair of shorts and wound her long, dark hair into a bun on top of her head.
“I promise I’ll take care of you. You won’t be homeless. We won’t be homeless. I’ll make this work. Somehow.” The pit bull came over and laid his head on her thigh, and Hazel dropped her head to her chest and her body shook.
Dammit. She was crying. Linc turned away and made his way back downstairs.
This—she—was not his problem. He didn’t even know her.
Hazel came downstairs a short time later, her eyes swollen and red rimmed, but she had a smile on her face. The dogs all followed her, then sat at her feet like little statues.
Weird little fuckers.
All she had was the remnants of that mattress and a couple of bags. Was that all she owned?
“I’m really sorry about nearly crushing your skull with the skillet. We’ll get out of your way now. I have a chair outside—oh, and my skillet. I’ll just put these in the car and be on my way.”
She headed toward the front door, the dogs following. It was the most pitiful entourage Linc had ever seen.
“Wait,” he said.
She stopped and turned to look at him.
“It’s late and you obviously don’t have anywhere to go. You can stay in the guesthouse for a day or two until you figure something out.”
Her eyes lit up like bright round diamonds. “Really? Oh my God, thank you so much. I’m Hazel Bristow, by the way.” She held out her hand, so he did the same.
She gave him a look. “That’s very . . . historical.”
“I go by Linc. And my mother’s a history teacher. She named all of us after historical figures.”
“All of you. So you have siblings.”
“I see. So you’re moving in?”
“Sort of. I mean, not really. I’m renovating this place.”
She frowned. “Why? What’s wrong with it? It’s a great house.”
“It needs some updating before I sell it.”
“Oh.” She chewed on her lower lip for a beat. “So you’re one of those people.”
The way she said that told him she wasn’t a fan of his livelihood. “You mean people who invest in homes, fix them up and make them better, then sell them and improve the neighborhood?”
He didn’t miss her derisive snort. “Yeah. House flippers. You come in, do some cheap modifications so you can make a quick profit, then turn around and sell and then you’re off to the next house.”
“Well, when you say it like that it does sound bad. But that’s not what I do.”
“And what do you do, Hazel?”
Her gaze shifted down to her dogs. “I foster dogs.”
“Is that what those are?”
“Yes. Sort of. Mostly.”
That was vague. “And you’re staying in an empty house because . . . ?”
“It’s complicated. Say, are you hungry? I’m hungry. I was going to fix myself some dinner. Would you like something to eat?”
She was avoiding the question, but he was hungry. “Sure.”
She seemed relieved not to answer the question about what she was doing staying at the house, but Linc supposed the answer to that question could wait.
At least until after dinner.