The trouble with mistlet.., p.10
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.10

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  “No more yakking in my bedroom, you hear me?” he called after her.

  And shit, now he was talking to a cat. Shaking his head at himself, he shoved his feet into his running shoes—his new running shoes since Pita had taken a dump in his beloved, perfectly broken-in ones two weeks before—and hit the concrete.

  He didn’t have a set route. Running was for clearing his brain, and he let his feet take him where they wanted to go. Sometimes that was along the Embarcadero, or through Fort Mason. Or the Presidio, or the Lyon Street steps.

  Today it was Cow Hollow.

  He wanted to talk to Archer, wanted to make sure he was doing something about Ethan contacting Willa. All Keane knew of Archer was that the guy clearly took care of his own, and he did consider Willa one of his own. He’d seen that firsthand at the dog wedding.

  Keane didn’t expect Archer to be at work this early. He assumed he’d have to leave a message. But when he got to the Pacific Pier Building and took the stairs to Archer’s second-floor offices, Archer was standing in the front room with Elle, the both of them staring down at an iPad screen together. There were two other men, one younger with a Doberman at his side, the other dressed like he’d just come back from a takedown, complete with more than one gun. He was talking when Keane entered, pointing at the iPad as if explaining something.

  Archer lifted his head, eyes intense and hard. Whatever he’d been looking at had pissed him off. It clearly wasn’t a good time but Keane didn’t care. “About that text Willa got last night from her asshole ex,” he said.

  Archer exchanged a long look with the other men. “Taken care of,” he finally said.

  “Take care of how?” he wanted to know. “She shouldn’t have to deal with him. I want to make sure she doesn’t have to.”

  “She won’t,” Archer said grimly. “He won’t contact her again.”

  Keane waited for a better explanation, but apparently Archer didn’t feel the need to explain himself.

  Elle shook her head at Archer and turned to Keane. “Good morning, by the way. And this is Joe,” she said of the guy all weaponed up. “He’s Archer’s second in command. And Max,” she said of the younger guy. “And this handsome four-legged guy”—she patted the huge dog on the head—“is Carl. And what Archer meant to say is that he and Max got Ethan. And because he had a warrant out for his arrest for being rough with other women and also stealing from them as well, they put his pansy ass in jail.”

  Keane’s jaw was so tight he could barely speak. “When?”

  “About an hour after she sent me the text last night,” Archer said.

  Elle smiled a little tightly but her eyes were warm. “As you know, Willa is incredibly special, to all of us. We’ve got her back.” She paused. “And it’s nice to know that you do as well. Isn’t it, Archer?”

  Archer slid her a look. She gave him one back, prompting him to blow out a sigh. “Yeah,” he said and then his eyes hardened again. “Don’t fuck it up. Don’t fuck her up.”

  “Okay then,” Elle said cheerfully. “Moving on. Welcome to the gang, Keane. You’re one of us now, right, Archer?”

  “As long as he doesn’t fuck it up,” Archer repeated.

  Keane held the guy’s gaze and gave a short nod. He wouldn’t fuck it up. He couldn’t.

  Because he already had.

  Back outside on the sidewalk, he stood in the early-morning dawn, a thick layer of fog casting everything in blues and grays. The lights were on inside Willa’s shop, though the sign on the door said closed.

  He could see in the windows, see movement past the bright string of holiday lights and boughs of holly. Willa was there.

  In another man’s arms.

  Chapter 8

  #TisTheSeason

  Willa had slept like crap. She wanted to blame it on the sheer amount of food she’d inhaled at dinner last night with Keane but even she, a woman who knew the value of putting her head in the sand once in a while, couldn’t fool herself.

  It hadn’t been dinner. It was Keane: his smile, his eyes.

  His kiss . . .

  It was also the sombering certainty that he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—get any more attached to her than he had anything else in his life. Not his family, his work, Petunia . . .

  And certainly not her.

  She rolled out of bed and showered and since she’d run out of coffee, skipped makeup. No need to risk poking out an eye with a mascara wand when she had only major catastrophic medical insurance.

  She ran down the four flights of stairs and called it exercise, entering her shop with three minutes to spare before a longtime client showed up. Carrie had standing reservations for one-day-a-week babysitting services for Luna, her new teacup piglet, and Macaroni, her “baby,” a.k.a. sixty-five-pound, sweet-as-pie pit bull.

  Thirteen-year-old Macaroni had arthritis, no teeth, questionable bowel control, and hip dysplasia, but he was pure heart. So much so that Carrie hadn’t been able to put him down as her family had been gently suggesting.

  Macaroni loved Willa and the feeling was mutual. He was a lot of work but he was absolutely the highlight of her week.

  Except Carrie didn’t show up. Figuring she was just running late, Willa began working on setting up the Santa Extravaganza Photo Booth for the upcoming weekend. She lost track of time until Spence appeared with two coffees in hand looking unaccustomedly solemn.

  Spence was the brain of their gang. Quiet but not even remotely shy, he’d been recruited for a government think tank right from college—which he’d finished with a mechanical engineering degree at age eighteen. He’d never said much about that job but he’d hated it. A few years later he and some of his coworkers had gone to work for themselves. Last year they’d sold their start-up and struck gold. Willa had no idea if he’d gotten a penny or a million bucks; he never talked about it.

  Since then he hadn’t found his next thing. They all knew he was unhappy and hated that for him, but if Spence didn’t want to talk, Spence didn’t talk. He’d been keeping busy with a variety of things and one of them was that he showed up at her shop several times a week to handle her pet-walking duties for her, which she loved. Nothing like a sexy geek to help increase business.

  In fact, he was closer to Carrie and her pets than Willa since Carrie was dating one of Spence’s ex-partners. “Come in,” Willa called out to him. “Macaroni isn’t here yet.”

  “I know.” Spence came closer, set down the two coffees, and reached for her hand. “Honey, Macaroni passed away this morning.”

  Willa felt her heart stop, just stop. “Oh no,” she breathed and pressed a hand to her chest, not that it alleviated any pain. “How?”

  “In his sleep. No pain,” he said softly and pulled her in just as she burst into tears.

  A few minutes later, thankful she hadn’t bothered with mascara after all, she shuddered out a sigh, still within the warm safety of Spence’s arms. Damn, crying was exhausting. She needed to get it together and call Carrie to see how she could help. She needed to get to work. She needed to do a lot of things. That’s when her gaze fell to the window and the man standing on the corner outside, his eyes locked on her.

  Keane.

  In the next beat, the shop door opened and there he was, bigger than life, looking a little tense, a frown on his lips, his eyes on Spence’s arms still around her.

  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

  “A client’s dog passed away this morning,” Spence told him. “Willa and Macaroni were really tight.”

  Was it her imagination or did he relax slightly?

  “Aw, hell,” he said, voice warm and genuine now. “That sucks.”

  “Yeah.” Spence ruffled Willa’s hair. “It does.”

  Willa took some tissues from the box on her counter and mopped herself up, aware of Keane watching her. He’d been thrown by finding her in Spence’s arms but he’d recovered quick, which was a point in his favor, she could admit. He’d also been running. He was in black basketball shorts,
with compression shorts peeking out beneath, and a long-sleeve dry-fit shirt that clung to his broad shoulders and chest, revealing every line of sinew on him.

  And there were many.

  His black baseball cap sat backward on his head and reflective aviator sunglasses covered his eyes. He shoved the glasses to the top of his head over his baseball cap, revealing his dark eyes filled with concern.

  She felt a little dizzy just looking at him, a fact she attributed to the lack of breakfast and the weight of grief.

  “I’m sorry,” he said quietly and she thought maybe he wasn’t just talking about Macaroni. “What can I do?”

  She was unprepared for the warmth that spread inside her at that. Unprepared and ill-equipped to handle. For weeks, inner alarms had been going off every time she got too close to him, blaring warnings at her, pummeling her with the memory of being stood up by him, and the even worse blow of him not remembering her.

  But now that she’d told him about it and heard his reaction and explanation, something had happened to her mad. It was as if someone had reached out and turned the volume down. Way down.

  Off, actually.

  Or maybe it’d been the kiss. It was incredibly hard to hold on to resentment for someone when you’d had your tongue down their throat. Plus, he kissed like magic.

  Spence pointed to the coffee on the counter. “Make sure she caffeinates before you attempt conversation,” he warned Keane and then kissed Willa on the cheek. “I’m leaving you in good hands,” he said to her.

  She stared up into his warm eyes. “How do you know?” She really hoped he had some wisdom to depart here. She needed it, bad.

  Spence’s smile was crooked and just a little sad. “Because you know as well as I do, people change.”

  He was referring to himself. He’d changed a lot—he’d had to in order to survive. Or maybe he’d meant the rest of them. Elle and Haley and Finn, even the far more closed-off Archer, they’d all had big changes in their lives, things that irrevocably affected them.

  But actually, she thought maybe he’d meant her, because they both knew how much she’d grown since she’d opened South Bark. Through her work and the love of her friends, she’d found a direction. That had given her confidence and anchored her in a way she’d never been before.

  Spence held her gaze for a minute, silently reminding her that she was no longer that meek wallflower she’d been in high school, that she knew more than anyone else things weren’t always what they seemed, that people weren’t always what they seemed, and also . . . some deserved a second chance.

  Aware that Keane was soaking up this conversation, both spoken and unspoken, she blew out a breath and nodded.

  “You know where to find me if you need me,” Spence said. He nodded at Keane and then was gone.

  Willa realized she was staring blindly after him when the to-go cup of coffee got waved back and forth beneath her nose. She latched on to it like it was the last air in the room.

  “Jesus, your fingers are frozen,” Keane said and wrapped his much warmer hands around hers on the cup, sandwiching her in his heat.

  She could feel the roughness of the calluses on his hands and she liked that. He was real, very real. She took a sip of the coffee, and then another, and then finally just gulped it down, feeling the caffeine sink into her system with a soft, relieved sigh.

  “Better?” Keane asked, dipping down a little to look into her eyes. “Yeah,” he said, a slice of amusement in his gaze as he answered his own question. “There you are. You don’t open for another hour, right?”

  She glanced at her clock. “No, but—”

  He pulled off her apron. “Love this one, by the way,” he said, smiling at the printed words I Don’t Have to Be Good—I’m CUTE! “And it’s true,” he said, grabbing her jacket from the hook by the door and wrapping her up in it. He went so far as to zip it up for her and pull her hood up over her head, tucking loose strands of her hair back out of her face.

  The feel of his fingers on her temple and jaw, as rough and callused as his palms had been, should’ve felt intrusive.

  Which was just about the opposite of how they felt. “Keane—”

  “Shh,” he said and took her hand. “I know I’ve given you absolutely zero reason to trust me but I’m going to ask you to anyway.”

  Yeah, she wasn’t really all that good with trust.

  He must have seen that in her gaze because he laughed softly, not at all insulted. “Reading you loud and clear but let’s try this,” he said. “How about you forget the asshole punk I was in high school for a minute, the one who’d say or do anything to get out of practice without having to talk to anyone, okay? Go off the guy I am today, standing here in front of you. Can you trust that guy?”

  This time she hesitated on the other side of the fence, and apparently not above taking advantage of that, Keane said, “Close enough,” and tugged her out the door.

  Chapter 9

  #NoSoupForYou

  Willa couldn’t believe she was doing this but apparently her feet had seceded from the States of Willa.

  “Lock up,” Keane told her and waited while she did just that. Then he took her hand again like maybe she was a flight risk.

  And she was. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.

  He laughed roughly. “Which it?”

  “Any of the its. All of the its.” Feeling like a shrew, she sighed and turned to face him. “But as for the one it in particular, the one where you stood me up—”

  He opened his mouth to say something and she put her fingers over his mouth. “I’m moving on from that,” she said softly. “I’m not a grudge holder—never have been, never will be—so it’s silly for me to hang on to my mad over something that you honestly don’t even remember—”

  Wrapping his fingers around her wrist, he kissed her fingertips before pulling them from his mouth. “Or intended,” he said. “Because, Willa, I can promise you, I never intended to hurt you.”

  Staring into his eyes, she slowly nodded. “I know.”

  He held her gaze and nodded back, and then he walked her through the courtyard of her building, where he tugged her into Tina’s Coffee Bar.

  The six-foot-tall mahogany-skinned barista was serving and she winked at Willa. “Been a while since you were in here with a man, honey. Didn’t like your last one, but I sure do like this one.” She gave Keane a big white smile. “And good morning to you too, sugar. Haven’t seen you much this week. How’s the Vallejo Street renovation coming?”

  “Almost done,” Keane said.

  Tina gave a big, deep laugh. “You’ve been saying that for months. Maybe you’ve grown too attached.”

  Keane just smiled. “How are the muffins this morning?”

  “Out of this world, don’t you doubt that for a single second.”

  Keane grinned at her. “I’ll take half a dozen of your finest.”

  Two minutes later, Willa and Keane were outside. The morning was still gray but their way was lit by the strings of twinkling white lights, casting the cobblestones in black and white bold relief.

  She watched Keane take in the two newest Christmas trees, one in front of O’Riley’s Pub, the other in front of Reclaimed Woods, both decorated in simple red and gold balls. The only sound around them was the soft trickle of the water flowing from the fountain and some lovelorn crickets mourning the dawn’s lack of warmth.

  “Legend states that if you make a wish with a true heart, true love will find you,” she said.

  He met her gaze. “Legend also states that if you put your tooth under your pillow the Tooth Fairy will leave you cash.”

  She slowed, as always the fountain calling to her to make a wish. Keane slowed too, looking at her with a question.

  She searched her pockets for change, but could only come up with a dog treat. “Damn.” It was the swear jar’s fault, all her spare change always ended up in there.

  “What?”

  “I wanted to make a wish,
she said.

 
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