The trouble with mistlet.., p.15
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.15

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  “Always,” she said and sat on the floor with Pita, not looking at all bothered by the fact that she was now filthy too. From another pocket she pulled out a comb and proceeded to use it to get most of the dirt and dust off the cat.

  “I’m not even going to ask what else you carry on you at all times,” he said, moving close, crouching at her side to stare into the cat’s half-closed-in-ecstasy eyes. “You’ve put her in a trance.”

  “Most cats get a little hypnotized with pleasure when you comb them,” she said and smiled. “Actually most females.”

  “Huh. Now that’s one thing about your kind that I didn’t know.”

  “You think that’s the only thing?” she asked with just enough irony in her voice to have him taking a longer look at her.

  “You have something you want me to know?” he asked.

  “Absolutely not.” But she blushed a gorgeous color of red and he had to admit to being more than a little curious.

  Apparently having had enough of the pampering, Pita climbed out of Willa’s lap.

  “Hold up,” he said to the cat. He called Sally back and pointed the FaceTime call toward Pita.

  Sally talked baby talk and the cat stopped and stared unblinking into the camera, listening intently.

  After, Sally thanked Keane and disconnected. Pita stalked off, tail and head high.

  “That was sweet of you,” Willa said.

  “That’s me, a real sweetheart. And you’re welcome, princess,” he called to Pita’s retreating figure. Grabbing Willa’s hand, he pulled her upright.

  Her hands went to his chest, but instead of using him to straighten herself, she held on, sliding her hands up and around his neck, rocking against him in the process.

  “That thing is happening again,” she whispered.

  Yeah. It most definitely was. “That ‘thing’ likes you,” he said. “A lot.”

  She snorted. “I didn’t mean that. Although”—she pressed into him some more, wriggling her hips not so subtly against his erection—“I definitely noticed.”

  “Hard not to.”

  She snorted again at that but curious as hell, he had to ask. “So what did you mean?”

  She bit her lower lip and got very busy staring at his shirt. He slid a hand up her back and into her hair, tugging until she looked up at him.

  Her gaze locked on his mouth.

  “I meant that thing where I want to do things to you,” she said.

  He smiled. “Not seeing the problem here, babe.”

  She shook her head and went to pull away. “I can’t stay. Big day. It’s the Santa Extravaganza at the shop.”

  “I thought you weren’t working today.”

  “I’m not. My employees handle this event for me; they always do. I’m just setting up and making sure everything looks good.”

  He caught her and when she tensed, he very gently pulled her back in, giving her plenty of room to escape if she really wanted. “So I do scare you.”

  “No.” She shook her head. “The only things I’m scared of are creepy crawlies and Santa Claus. Which is why I have my girls handle Santa Extravaganza for me.”

  He paused. “Okay, we’re going to circle back to that,” he said, “but first, if you’re not scared of me, why are we . . . ‘not ready’ again?”

  She gave a small smile that held more than a few secrets. “Maybe I’m just . . . cautious.”

  Smart woman, he had to admit. “And the Santa Claus fear?”

  “How are we supposed to trust a full-grown man who wants little kids to sit on his lap and whisper their deepest secrets?” she quipped.

  “But you love Christmas.”

  “Christmas, yes. Santa, not so much.”

  “So why do the Santa Extravaganza then?” he asked.

  She shrugged as if uncomfortable with this subject. “It’s a huge moneymaker and I give half the profits to the SPCA. They need the dough.” She headed to the door, scooping up Vinnie on her way out. She gave the tiniest dog on the planet a kiss on his face that made Keane feel envious as hell, and walked out the door.

  Chapter 13

  #KeepCalmAndBeMerry

  At the end of the day, Keane found Pita napping . . . on his pillow. He started to remove her but she flattened herself, becoming five-hundred-plus pounds, and he blew out a breath because they both knew arguing with her was a waste of time. And in any case, she’d had a rough day and he understood rough days. “I’m going out for a little bit,” he told her. “And while I’m gone you’re not going to destroy a damn thing, right?”

  She yawned, stood, plumped up his pillow with her two front paws like she was making biscuits, and then plopped back down and closed her eyes.

  “Behave,” he said firmly.

  She met his gaze, her own serene, and he was pretty sure he’d just made a deal with the devil.

  Thinking fuck it, he headed toward O’Riley’s. Sure, there were fifty places to get dinner between his place and the pub, maybe even more than fifty, but there was never any question of where he’d end up after work.

  He wanted to see Willa.

  From the beginning he’d known he was fascinated by her, but he hadn’t realized it would become so much more than a physical attraction.

  He still had absolutely zero idea how to process that.

  It was no longer raining, but the air was frigid. Shoving his hands in his jacket pockets, he lowered his head against the wind. Entering the building through the courtyard, he stopped by the fountain when Old Man Eddie stepped out of the alley.

  Eddie was at least eighty, and that was being kind—something time hadn’t been to him. He had Wild Man of Borneo shock white hair and in spite of the cold air, wore board shorts and a Grateful Dead sweatshirt that looked as if he’d been wearing it since the seventies.

  “So you’re Willa’s now,” the guy said. “Right?”

  Keane gave him a closer look. “Not sure how that’s any of your business.”

  The guy beamed. “Good answer, man. And I like that you didn’t deny it. Our Willa, she’s had a rough go of things. But she’s picked herself up by the bootstraps and made something of herself, so she deserves only the best. Are you the best?”

  “Rough how?”

  Eddie simply smiled and patted him on the arm. “Yeah. You’ll do.” And then he turned and walked away.

  “Rough how?” Keane asked again.

  But Eddie had vanished.

  Keane let out a long, slow breath. As he knew all too well, the past was the past, but it still killed him to think about Willa as a young kid, on her own.

  At the fountain, a woman was searching her pockets for something. She was early twenties and looked distressed as she whirled around, eyes narrowed.

  He realized it was Haley, Willa’s optometrist friend.

  “Lose something?” he asked.

  “No. Well, yes,” she corrected. “I wanted to make a stupid wish on the stupid legend but I can’t find any stupid coins . . .” She sat on the stone ledge and pulled off her shoe, shaking it. When nothing came out, she sighed. “Damn. I always have a least a penny in there.”

  He pulled a quarter from his pocket. “Here.”

  “Oh, no, I couldn’t—”

  “Take it,” he said, dropping it in her hand. “For your ‘stupid’ wish on the ‘stupid’ legend.”

  She laughed. “You’re making fun but it really is stupid. And yet here I am . . .” She tossed up her hands. “It’s just that it worked for Pru and it appears to have worked for Willa.” She gave him a long look making him realize she meant him.

  He shook his head. “We’re not—”

  “Oh no.” She pointed at him. “Don’t ruin my hope! I mean it’s Willa. She pours herself into taking care of everyone, the kids she employs, the animals, her friends.” She smiled a little. “Well I don’t have to tell you; you know firsthand.”

  He absolutely did. Willa had taken on Pita for him when she had less than zero reason to like him. She’d take
n him on as a friend when he wasn’t sure he deserved it.

  “She deserves love,” Haley said. “She gives one hundred percent to everyone and everything but herself so we all knew it was going to be something big when she fell. Someone who really knocked her off her feet.” She smiled. “You’ve got the big down anyway.”

  “I’m not sure it’s what you think,” he said quietly.

  “Yeah, well, nothing ever is.” She turned back to the water. “If you’ll excuse me.”

  “Sure,” he said and left her to her privacy.

  The pub was packed. Lights twinkled above all the laughter and voices and “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” was busting out of hidden speakers.

  And speaking of Santa, he was sitting at the bar calm as you please, tossing back a shot of something.

  Keane made his way to the far right end of the bar, where Willa sat with Elle, Spence, and Archer. There was a row of empty glasses and a pitcher of eggnog in front of them. Elle and Spence were deep in discussion about Spence’s workout routine.

  “You have to eat healthy more than once to get in shape,” he said to Elle.

  “Cruel and unfair,” she answered and jabbed a finger at Archer, who was shoving some chili fries into his mouth. “Then explain him.”

  Archer swiveled his gaze Elle’s way and swallowed a huge bite. “What?”

  Elle made a noise of disgust. “You eat like you’re afraid it’s going out of style and yet you never gain a single ounce of fat.”

  Archer gave a slow smile. “Genetics, babe. I was born this way.”

  Elle rolled her eyes so hard that Keane was surprised they didn’t fall right out of her head. Shifting past all of them, he headed toward Willa. No longer in sweats, she wore a black skirt, tights, boots, and the brightest red Christmas sweater he’d ever seen. Her gaze was glued to Santa in the middle of the bar and Keane would’ve sworn she was twitching. He purposely maneuvered to block her view of the guy. “Hey.”

  “Hey.” Her smile didn’t quite meet her eyes. “Be right back,” she said and, slipping off her stool, headed into the back.

  Keane looked at Elle, who was also watching Willa go, her eyes solemn and concerned. “I know she’s not a Santa fan,” he said. “But what am I missing?”

  “A lot,” Elle said but didn’t further enlighten him.

  And he knew she wouldn’t. Elle could keep state secrets safe. He looked at Spence, who seemed sympathetic but he shook his head. Archer might as well have been a brick wall, so Keane turned to Haley, who’d just come in, apparently having made her wish.

  She grimaced.

  “Tell me,” he said.

  “Her mom dated a drunk Santa who chased her around the house wanting her to sit on his lap. Back then they called it funny for a grown-ass man to terrorize a little girl.”

  “And now they call it a fucking felony,” Keane said grimly.

  Elle and Archer both turned to look at him with a new appraisal—and approval—in their gazes. But they still weren’t talking.

  And he got that. Good friends stood at each other’s backs unfailingly. He was grateful Willa had that. After how her childhood had gone, she needed that.

  But he wanted in her inner circle and he wanted that shockingly badly. He made his way down the bar. “Hey,” he said, tapping Santa on the shoulder.

  Santa turned to face him with the slow care of the very inebriated. “Whadda want?”

  “There’s free drinks down on Second Street for Santas,” Keane said.

  The guy’s eyes brightened. “Yeah?” He got to his feet, weaving a little. “Thanks, man.”

  When Santa headed for the door, Keane followed the path Willa had taken. The hallway ended at the kitchen. There were a couple of other doors as well. Offices, he assumed. The bathroom door was shut so he waited there, holding up the wall and contemplating the utter silence on the other side of the door. After another few minutes went by, he pushed off the wall and knocked. “Willa.”

  Nothing.

  It wasn’t the first time today that one of the females in his life has refused to speak to him but something didn’t feel right. “I’m coming in,” he warned and opened the door.

  The bathroom had two stalls, a sink, and was pleasantly clean.

  And empty.

  The window was wide open to the night, the cold air rushing in.

  She’d gone out the window.

  He strode across the room and stuck his head and shoulders out, taking in the corner of the courtyard and the fire escape only a few feet away. Craning his neck, he looked up and saw a quick glimpse of a slim foot as it vanished over the edge of the roof.

  Five stories up.

  “Shit,” he said, his vision wavering. “Why is it always something high up?” Muttering some more, he pushed himself through the window, bashing his shoulders against the casing as he squeezed through. Squeeze being the operative word.

  Also he hadn’t thought ahead to the landing problem coming out headfirst, so there was an awkward moment when he nearly took a dive out face-first before he managed to right himself.

  He stared at the damn fire escape and then rattled it. It held and he blew out a breath. “You’ve fucking lost it,” he told himself as he began to climb.

  He passed the second floor and began to sweat. He was outright shaking as he counted each story off to himself to keep his sanity. “Three.” He held his breath and kept going. “Four.”

  Finally, level with the roof, he made the mistake of looking down. “Fuck. Five. Fuck.” He had to force himself up and over the ledge, and flopped gracelessly to the rooftop.

  Chapter 14

  #HoHoHo

  Willa turned her head at the sound of a body hitting the rooftop, wide-eyed at the sight of Keane flat on his back like the bones in his legs had just dissolved.

  “Keane?” she asked in disbelief.

  He didn’t move, just lay there with his eyes closed, breathing erratically. “Yeah?”

  She’d been sitting here alone contemplating her life and watching the occasional glimpses of the moon through the slivers of clouds streaking across the midnight black sky. The moonlight did strange things to the world, leeching out the color so that everything seemed like nothing more than a web of shadows cast in silver. Maybe she’d hit her head when she’d taken a header out of the bathroom window.

  Stupid panic.

  But then again, she’d rarely thought clearly while operating under high stress. And it seemed at the moment, she wasn’t the only one.

  Keane finally spoke again. “What the hell?”

  “What the hell what?”

  “What the hell are we doing on the damn rooftop?”

 
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