The trouble with mistlet.., p.18
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.18

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis

  And okay, so he’d been hoping to lay eyes—and maybe his mouth as well—on Willa. Yeah, he’d gotten her message last night loud and clear.

  It’d been a one-time thing.

  He got it. And actually, one-time things were his specialty. It was all he ever did these days. So the smart thing was to get on board and agree with her.

  But he wasn’t feeling all that agreeable, not that he wanted to think about that.

  And in the end, it hadn’t mattered. Willa hadn’t been in the shop yet and he’d dealt with Rory, who’d been closed-mouthed on where her boss might be.

  Worried that he might’ve had something to do with her absence, Keane had both texted and called Willa’s cell, but hadn’t gotten through. He could admit to feeling uneasy. Either she’d decided last night had been a huge mistake on top of a one-time thing, or . . . well, he couldn’t think of an alternative.

  But the thought of her regretting what had been the best night in his recent and ancient history didn’t sit well with him. His big plan had been to rush through the day and get back to South Bark before closing so he could see what the hell was going on.

  “Well?” Aunt Sally demanded.

  He joined her on the porch and shut the door behind him, closing off the noisy racket from inside. Plus if she was going to yell at him, he’d rather she didn’t do it in front of his crew and undermine his authority. “What do you mean you only have an hour left?” he asked. “Did you run away from the home? What’s going on?”

  “Oh no,” she said, shaking a bony finger in his face. “You first. Where’s my baby?”

  “She’s not here. I knew the noise would upset her so I—”

  “What have you done with her? Oh, my God.” She wrung her hands. “You did it, you sold her.”

  “No,” he said. “She’s with a friend.”

  “She’s delicate, Keane. And I don’t even think she knows she’s an animal, much less a cat! I know that’s what your parents did to you when you caused some ruckus, shipped you off, but that’s not how to handle things.” She sounded worried sick, which made him feel like a first-class jerk.

  And a little shell-shocked. That’s exactly what he’d done. He’d shipped the cat off rather than deal with her, just like his parents had always done to him. Jesus. Was he like them? “She’s fine,” he promised. “My . . . friend loves cats.” Look at him trip over the word friend.

  “Your friend?”

  “Yes,” he said and really hoped that was true, that at the very least he and Willa were still friends, that he hadn’t blown that last night.

  “Where is this person?” Aunt Sally demanded. “Take me to her right now.”

  Okay then. He stuck his head back inside and came face-to-face with an obviously eavesdropping and also obviously amused Sass. “Chicken,” he whispered.

  “You don’t pay me enough to lie to sweet old ladies,” she whispered back.

  In fact, yes he did pay her enough to lie to old ladies. He paid her enough to run a third-world country. But now wasn’t a good time to point that out. “I’ll be back,” he said.

  Sass smiled. “Want me to call ahead and warn Willa that you’ve lied to your sweet old great-aunt and ask her to lie for you as well?”

  “Not lie,” he said. “I merely omitted a few facts.”

  “Such as you pawned off her cat to day care.”

  “Just hold down the damn fort,” he said and shut the door on her nosy nose.

  He turned back to his aunt and took her hand. “I’ll drive.”

  Ten minutes later he parked outside the Pacific Pier Building, right in front of South Bark Mutt Shop.

  Sally eyeballed the shop and then turned and glared daggers at him. “If there’s one little hair on Petunia’s sweet little head harmed . . .”

  “Death and dismemberment,” he said. “I know.” Just as he also knew that if anyone had been harmed, it wouldn’t be that cat. She could slay anyone at a hundred paces.

  Working her way through some dreaded bookkeeping on a break, Willa stopped and stared sightlessly out the window. Over the last few weeks there’d been a pattern of her cash drawer being short forty bucks.

  Even more concerning, it only happened when one of her employees closed up. She hated the implication but she was now down one hundred and twenty precious dollars and she couldn’t ignore it any longer.

  Rory poked her head in. “Everything okay?”

  Rory had been with Willa the longest. Willa didn’t want her thief to be Rory, but she couldn’t be sure so she said, “Yep.”

  “Okay,” Rory said, clearly not buying it but not pushing either. “I’m going to groom Buddy. Can you listen for customers?”

  “Of course.” Buddy was a twelve-year-old cat who hated baths. But he did love being combed, so they had an ongoing love/hate relationship, though he was partial to Rory.

  A few minutes later, the bell above the front door rang. Willa was heading out there when from the back came a startled scream, a growl, a yelp, and then a crash.

  She raced back there and found Rory on her hands and knees peering under their storage shelves, and Lyndie standing in the center of the room wringing her hands.

  “What happened?” Willa asked.

  “Something startled me and Buddy.” Rory muttered this with a scathing glance in Lyndie’s direction, and Willa knew there was a lot more to this story.

  “Something?” she asked.

  “Yeah, and then he bit me and I let go of him. He’s under the shelves cowering. Come here, Buddy,” Rory said in a singsong voice. “I’m not mad at you, I’d have bitten me too. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

  Willa dropped to her hands and knees next to Rory and peered under the shelving to find two huge, terrified eyes staring back at her. “Aw, baby, it’s okay. Come on out now . . .” She pulled a pupperoni treat from her pocket and waggled it enticingly. “We’ll go right to the combing part, okay? You love that.”

  Buddy, always unable to resist food of any kind, crab-crawled his way out from beneath the shelf and very cautiously took the treat.

  Willa gently pulled him into her body and cuddled him close, kissing him on top of his bony head. “You poor, silly baby.” She craned her neck and eyed Rory’s finger, which was bleeding profusely. “How bad?”

  “I’m fine,” she said and headed to the sink.

  Willa had to believe that, at least for the moment while she dealt with Lyndie and the suspicions that had been churning in her own gut. “When did you get here?”

  Lyndie sucked on her lower lip and exchanged a glance with Rory.

  Willa bit back a sigh. She’d thought they were past this. “Lyndie,” she said quietly, gently. “I know you slept here last night. I know you sleep here when you need to.”

  “No,” she said, the denial instantly defensive. “I—”

  “Stop,” Willa said in that same calm voice. No judgment. No censure. Because she, more than anyone, understood the need to get out of a bad situation and yet have no safe place to go. “I want you to feel safe here. But on the nights you need a place to sleep, you just have to let me know. I’ve got a couch four flights up that’s far better than the floor of this wash room. Ask Rory, she slept there on and off her entire first year with me.”

  Rory nodded. “She makes cinnamon toast late at night when you can’t sleep and we watch Netflix.”

  Lyndie stared at Willa for a long beat and then swallowed hard. “You’d let me sleep in your apartment?”

  “Yes,” Willa said. “But there’s something that I won’t let you do. And that’s steal from the till.”

  Lyndie’s eyes shuttered. “I didn’t steal anything.” She backed up to the door. “You can call the cops but you can’t keep me here to wait for them—”

  “I’m not calling the cops,” Willa said and rose to her feet. “I need you to listen to me, Lyndie, and really hear what I’m saying, okay? I love having you as an employee, I love how you treat the animals, but no one’s holdi
ng you against your will. More than that, I don’t want anyone here who doesn’t want to be here, and I won’t allow anyone to take advantage of me. Rory, what’s my policy on stealing?” she asked without taking her eyes off Lyndie.

  Rory had washed out her finger and was wrapping it in a paper towel to stanch the bleeding. “Two strikes and you’re out.”

  “And why isn’t it three?” Willa asked.

  “Because you were born early and without patience,” Rory recited.

  Willa nodded. “Do you get what I’m telling you?” she asked Lyndie.

  The girl swallowed hard. “I’ve had my first strike.”

  “You’ve had your first strike,” Willa agreed. She was firm on that, always. Boundaries mattered with the animals and boundaries mattered with the kids as well.

  “I’m sorry,” Lyndie whispered.

  “Thank you, and I know. But we both deserve better, okay?”

  Lyndie nodded and Willa moved to the grooming station with Buddy. “You two go out front and take care of customers. I’ve got Buddy.”

  When they were gone, she cooed to the scared cat, “And you, you adorable little beast. Let’s make some magic together.”

  “How about me, want to make some magic with me too?” asked an unbearably familiar, low, and sexy voice from behind her.

  Keane, of course, because who else could make her heart leap into her throat and her nipples go hard while everything inside her went soft at the same time?

  Chapter 17


  Keane was amused that he’d rendered Willa speechless.

  For once.

  But there was no getting around the fact that she didn’t exactly look happy to see him. Moving toward her, he picked up the comb she’d dropped and handed it to her, holding on to it until she met his gaze. “Hey.”

  “Hey,” she said back. At first, she’d looked a little bit like a deer in the headlights, but now she was closing herself off, right before his very eyes.

  “You okay?” he asked.

  “Yes, just busy, so—”

  “Not so busy at all!” Rory had stuck her head in the door and was grinning like a loon. “Lyndie and I’ve got it all handled out here so you two just”—she smiled guilelessly—“make magic or something.”

  And then she was gone.

  “She’s match-making,” Willa muttered. “I was very busy having a moment with them and now they’re match-making.”

  “Want to talk about that moment you were having?” he asked. “Seemed serious.”

  “I’ve got it handled.”

  She always did. She was good at that, handling whatever came her way. “Okay, then let’s talk about how even your employees can see how much you like me,” he said.

  She rolled her eyes at that, which made him laugh. He moved in and let his mouth brush her ear. “You telling me that you didn’t have a good time last night?”

  As close as he was, he felt the tremor go through her but before he could pull her in, she stepped free and glared at him. “Stop using your sex voice,” she said, hugging herself. “And you know I had a good time.” She hesitated, looking around like maybe she was making sure no one could hear them. “Twice,” she whispered.

  He burst out laughing. “You mean three times.”

  She stared at him. “You were counting?” she asked in disbelief.

  “Of course not. Didn’t have to.” He leaned in. “And anyway, we both know it was four.”

  She pointed at him. “And that. That’s why we’re not doing it again. Because you want to talk about it. And I don’t.”

  He caught her when she would’ve moved away. “We really not going to do that again?”

  “One night,” she said softly, holding his gaze. “You agreed. No strings attached. You agreed to that too.”

  “Yeah.” He shook his head. “I might’ve been premature.”

  She choked out a laugh. “Now that’s one thing you weren’t . . .” She shook her head when he snorted. “I think we both know that we’re better off as friends, Keane.”

  “Friends,” he repeated, still unsure how he was feeling about this.

  “Yes,” she said. “Friends stick.” She lifted a shoulder, as if a little embarrassed. “I guess I wouldn’t mind if you . . . stuck.”

  He looked at her for a long beat, picturing the novelty of that, being friends with a woman he wanted naked and writhing beneath him. “I like the sticky part.”

  She pushed him but he caught her hand and got serious. “I’m in,” he said.

  Her mouth curved. “In as friends, or was that another sexual innuendo?”

  “Both,” he said just to see her smile go bright again.

  When it did, his chest got all tight. It told him that this was something much more than the still sizzling chemistry between them, but given the look on her face, he didn’t have to point that out. She already knew.

  “So,” she said after an awkward pause. “What brings you here? You done working for the day?”

  “No, my great-aunt wants to see Pita.”

  Willa processed Keane’s words and felt her spine snap straight as she rushed for the door.

  Keane was right on her heels and she sent him a glare over her shoulder. “You should’ve told me right away she was here!”

  “I told you as soon as you stopped talking about magic and sticky.”

  “Oh my God.” She was going to have to kill him. He was keeping up with her, his broad shoulders pushing the boundaries of his work T-shirt, jeans emphasizing his long legs, scuffed work boots on his feet, all combining to make her heart take a hard leap against her ribs.

  Or maybe that was just him doing all of that to her.

  She took another peek and their gazes locked and held. During that long beat, Willa forgot her problems with Lyndie, forgot the shop . . . hell, she forgot her own name because images from last night were flashing through her head again. The way his big, work-roughened hands had felt on her, the deep growl from his throat as he’d moved deep inside her, touching something no one else ever had. He’d taken her outside of herself and it’d been shockingly easy for him to do so, as if he’d known her all his life.

  Then there’d been the sheer, unadulterated, driving need and hunger he’d caused. And fulfilled . . . And she’d put them in the friend zone.

  She was an idiot, a scared, vulnerable idiot . . .

  An older woman was making her way around the shop, walking slowly, maybe a little painfully, her face pinched with anxiety and concern.

  “Aunt Sally, this is Willa Davis,” Keane said, introducing them. “She owns and runs South Bark.”

  “Lovely to meet you,” Willa said.

  The woman narrowed her eyes. “You’re the friend who has my Petunia?”

  She slid a look Keane’s way. “Yes. She’s safe and sound, as always when she’s here.”

  “As always?”

  Ruh-roh, Willa thought, but before she could speak, Sally beat her to it.

  “I want her back.” Keane’s aunt’s white hair was in a bun and that bun quivered with indignity. “Right now.”

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