The trouble with mistlet.., p.19
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.19

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
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  “Aunt Sally,” Keane said quietly, putting his hand over the older woman’s. “Pita—er, Petunia really is very happy here, I promise you.”

  “Who’s Pita?” Sally asked.

  Willa laughed but when Keane sent her a pained look, she turned it into a cough.

  “She wasn’t meant to be crated all day,” Sally said. “She hates being contained—”

  “Oh, I don’t keep the fur babies in a crate,” Willa said. “I only take on a very select few in the first place and they stay with me or one of my employees all day. Petunia is one of those select few. And she’s really wonderful, by the way. So sweet and loving.”

  This time it was Keane to choke on a laugh and then tried to cough it off.

  Willa ignored him. “Petunia really enjoys being high up and viewing the world from a safe perch.”

  “Yes,” Sally said with great relief, losing a lot of her tension. “She does.”

  Willa turned and gestured to the other end of the store, where she had a built-in shelving unit lining the wall with an assortment of animal beds for sale, ranging from Saint Bernard–size down to small enough for the tiniest of kittens.

  Petunia was on the highest shelf in the smallest of beds, half of her body overlapping on either side—which didn’t appear to be bothering her one bit, as she was fast asleep.

  “Oh my,” Sally breathed, cupping her own face, which had softened with pleasure. “She looks . . . ridiculous.”

  Willa laughed. “She chose the perch, and she’s perfectly content. She just came back from a walk—”

  “A walk!” Sally exclaimed. “Outside?”

  “On a leash,” Willa said. “One of my friends took her and two golden retrievers out together this morning. They all had a great time.”

  Sally whirled to Keane, eyes bright as she reached up and smacked him in the chest. “You’re brilliant.”

  Keane looked surprised. And wary. “I am?”

  “And here I’ve been thinking how sad it is that you never recovered from losing Blue enough to get another pet. Blue was his childhood dog,” she said to Willa before looking back at Keane. “I thought when your mother and father gave that dog away without talking to you about it first that the loss had irrevocably destroyed your ability to love another animal.”

  Keane’s expression went blank. “They didn’t give him away,” he said. “I left the back door open and he escaped. It was my fault.”

  Sally shook her head. “I always wondered what hokey-pokey bologna they fed you. Keane, you loved that dog beyond reason, you’d never have carelessly left the back door open knowing your yard wasn’t fenced in.”

  “How do you know this?” he asked. “You weren’t around.”

  “My sister and I share a best friend. And let’s just say that Betty didn’t turn her back on me like everyone else. She keeps me updated.”

  Keane still wore that blank expression, but there was something happening behind his eyes now that tugged hard at Willa’s heart.

  She’d bought his party line that maybe he was a guy who didn’t feel deeply, who didn’t have a sensitivity chip. A guy who couldn’t attach. But she was starting to suspect it was the actual opposite, that he had incredible heart, he’d just been hurt. Badly.

  “Petunia,” Sally called softly, her voice cracking with age. “Baby, come to Mama.”

  Petunia immediately lifted her head with a surprised chirp. She leapt with grace to the counter and jogged straight to Sally, right into the woman’s open arms.

  Sally bent her head low, and cat and woman had a long moment together, the only sounds being the raspy purr from Petunia and the soft murmurs from Sally. “I have to go, Petunia,” she whispered softly. “You might not see me for a while. You be a good girl for Keane, okay? He’s male so he might not know much, but he’s got a big heart, even if he doesn’t know that either.”

  Willa’s heart squeezed hard. She turned to Keane with worry and he gave her a very small smile, reaching for her hand. She gently squeezed his fingers.

  His eyes were warm as they slid over her features. Warm and grateful, she realized. Because she’d taken good care of Petunia? Or that she’d been kind to his aunt? Or maybe it was simply because she was there.

  Sally lifted her head. Her eyes were dry but devastated as she turned away. “I need a ride back now,” she said and snapped her fingers in the air.

  Keane smiled grimly at Willa. “I’ve been summoned.” Leaning down, he brushed a kiss across her mouth before looking into her eyes.

  For what she had no idea. But wanting to give comfort however she could, she pressed into him and felt him let out a low breath, like maybe he was relaxing for the first time all day.

  Pulling back, he kissed her once more, and then he was gone.

  Chapter 18

  #NoChill

  Keane was good at burying emotions, real good. He was also good at compartmentalizing. But when he’d walked Sally inside her rehab center and she’d hugged him, whispering, “Be better than the rest of the family,” and then patted his cheek and walked away, he’d had a funny feeling that he couldn’t place.

  That evening, just as he was leaving work to pick up Pita, his architect and engineer showed up for an impromptu meeting on the Mission job. Worried about making Willa work late, he quickly called South Bark. Willa was with a customer but Rory told him no worries, they’d take care of Petunia as late as he needed. Someone would just take her home if need be.

  Relieved, he went into his meeting and when it was over an hour later, he realized with a hit to his solar plexus what the niggling feeling about Sally had been.

  She’d been trying to tell him goodbye.

  He left the jobsite and stopped to see his aunt on his way to South Bark—only to be told that Sally had been taken to the hospital.

  When he got there, they wouldn’t tell him a damn thing because she hadn’t listed any contacts. Luckily Keane knew the nurse and in spite of the fact that they’d slept together twice before he’d backed off when he’d seen wedding bells and white picket fences in her pretty eyes, Jenny seemed genuinely happy to see him. They exchanged pleasantries and then he asked about Sally.

  She shook her head. “I can’t tell you anything about her condition—I could lose my job for that. You’re hot, Keane, and great in bed . . .” She smiled. “Really, really great, but even I have my limits.”

  She did, however, let him sit in Sally’s room.

  Exhausted, he stretched out his legs and leaned his head back. He was half asleep when his aunt’s cranky voice came from the bed. “You paid my rehab center bill.”

  And he’d pay her hospital bill too, if she needed. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.

  “Worrying is what I do.”

  “Just get better.”

  “Huh,” she said. “Is that out of concern for me or concern for you that you might get stuck with Petunia?”

  “Both.”

  She cackled at that. “I might have to write you into my will.”

  He found a smile. “Look at you being all sweet. I knew you had it in you, deep, deep down.”

  “Just don’t tell anyone,” she said. “They’ll think I have no chill.”

  He blinked. “What?”

  “It’s a term used when you act specifically uncool about something.”

  He laughed. “I know what it means, I’m just wondering how you know.”

  Sally shrugged. “My nurse keeps saying it about the doctors. Now stop stalling and explain to me what the hell you’re doing here. I know I didn’t have anyone call you.”

  He shook his head. “And why is that?” he asked, apparently still butt-hurt over it.

  She closed her eyes. “You should be home with your girl right now.”

  Keane scrubbed a hand over his face. “Willa’s not mine.”

  “Spoken just like a man who’s never had to work for a woman in his life.”

  This wrenched another laugh from him. He stared at his clenched h
ands and then lifted his head. “I want to know what’s going on with you. I want you to put me on as your next of kin and contact, and I’d like to have your power of attorney as well.”

  “Circling the inheritance already?”

  “I want to be able to make sure you’re being cared for,” he said.

  She stared at him, her rheumy eyes fierce and proud and stubborn as . . . well, as he imagined his own were. Finally, she blew out a rough breath. “I lived the past three extra decades without any family at all.”

  “Yeah and how has that worked out for you?” he asked.

  She huffed and leaned back, closing her eyes. “It doesn’t matter now. What matters is that you go.”

  “Not happening.”

  Her mouth went tight, her eyes stayed tightly closed.

  He blew out a sigh. “Aunt Sally—”

  “I’m dying,” she said flatly.

  He stopped breathing. “No.” He stood up and moved to her bedside, covering her hand with his. “No,” he said again.

  She looked up at him. “You can stand as tall as a tree and scowl down at me all you want. I’m eighty-five years old. It’s going to be God’s truth.”

  “When?”

  She shrugged.

  “Soon?”

  “Only if you keep drilling me.”

  He let out a low laugh and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Christ.”

  “Look, I could choke on my Metamucil tomorrow morning and go toes up just like that, you never know.”

  “And I could die from slipping and falling in warm cat yak getting out of bed,” he said.

  She laughed. “It’s the warm that always gets me.” She sobered. “I just want you forewarned. Since you seem so fragile and all.”

  “Yeah,” he said dryly. “I’m as fragile as a peach.”

  “I want you to listen to me,” she said, squeezing his fingers with surprising strength.

  So he bent low, thinking she was going to tell him something important in regard to her wishes.

  “If you take my cat to the pound after I’m gone,” she said, “I will haunt you for the rest of your life, and then I’ll follow you to hell and haunt you for all of eternity.”

  Chapter 19

  #MischiefManaged

  Keane drove straight to South Bark. It was past seven and he felt like a dick that he’d left Willa to deal with one of his problems. He could only hope Pita had been . . . well, not a PITA.

  The shop was closed, locked up tight as a drum, and dark, except for the twinkle of the holiday lights strung across the glass window front. He took it as a good sign that there wasn’t a note posted for him.

  He pressed his face up against the glass but no one was inside. Turning, he strode across the cobblestone courtyard, lit by more strings of lights. The water fell from the fountain, the sound muted by the music tumbling out of the pub, which was still going strong.

  Near the alley, Old Man Eddie was talking to two gray-bunned ladies. “Some beauty for the beauties,” he said, handing them each a little spring of green held together by a red ribbon.

  The ladies handed him some cash and smiled broadly. “Thanks for the . . . mistletoe.”

  Mistletoe his ass, Keane thought with a reluctant smile. That was weed. He entered the pub and moved to the end of the bar. Rory was there, seemingly in a standoff with Max, who was minus his sidekick, Carl.

  “No,” she said.

  “Look, you want a ride home to Tahoe for Christmas,” Max said. “And I happen to be going that way. Why take two buses and a damn train when I could drive you?”

  “Maybe I already have my tickets.”

  “Do you?”

  She rolled her eyes.

  Max just stood there, arms folded across his chest.

  “What’s your problem?” she snapped.

  “You know what my problem is,” he said. “It’s you.”

  She pointed a finger at him. “You know what you are, Max? You’re a hypocrite.” And she whirled away from the bar, nearly plowing Keane over.

  He put his hands on her arms to steady her.

  She backed away from him, a scowl still on her face. “Sorry.”

  “No worries,” he said. “You okay?”

  “If one more person asks me that, I’m going to start kicking asses and taking names.”

  “Fair enough,” Keane said, lifting his hands in surrender. “I’m just looking to relieve whoever is on Pita duty.”

  A small smile crossed her face. “I offered to be, but Willa insisted. She was here with her friends, it was girls’ night, but I lost track of her.”

  “Try the back,” Sean suggested from where he was serving behind the bar. “Pool table.”

  Archer and Spence were playing pool back there, and arguing while they were at it.

  Seemed like it was the night for it.

  “It’s getting too cold. You’ve got to get him off the streets,” Archer was saying as he shot the four ball and bounced it off the corner pocket.

  Spence stood and pointed at the nine ball. “Bottom pocket,” he said and made his shot before pointing at Archer. “And I’ve gotten him off the damn streets. Multiple times. Have you ever tried arguing with someone who literally fried their brain at Woodstock?”

  “Man, that guy is still frying his brain,” Archer said. “And speaking of, he hung some of his clippings in the alley entrance and is telling any woman who walks by that it’s mistletoe.”

  “You talking about Old Man Eddie?” Keane asked.

  Archer and Spence exchanged a look. “Yeah,” Spence finally said. “We’re trying to figure a way to keep him warm and healthy for the winter months that he’ll agree to. So far all he agrees to is living in the fucking alley.”

  Keane nodded. “He’s out there right now, selling some of that ‘mistletoe’ to a couple of older ladies.”

  Archer jabbed a finger at Spence. “Deal with him tonight or I will.”

  “Thought you gave up being a cop,” Spence said.

  Archer narrowed his eyes and the testosterone level in the back room spiked to off-the-chart. “Was that supposed to be funny?”

  “A little bit, yeah.” Spence turned to Keane. “You play?”

  Keane eyed the pool table. “Some.”

  Archer’s bad ’tude never wavered as he reset the balls.

  “Never mind him,” Spence said. “He’s just pouting because he’s
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