The trouble with mistlet.., p.23
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.23

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  Damn orgasms.

  Rory and Cara showed up and took one look at her and smiled. “Are you making the walk of shame in your own shop?” Cara asked.

  Yes. “Of course not.”

  Rory eyeballed Willa up one side and down the other. “Actually,” the girl said, “the true walk of shame is when you take all the mugs and plates you’ve been hoarding from your nightstand to your kitchen.”

  They both laughed.

  Willa ignored them and popped the last muffin into her mouth. She took a moment to close her eyes and moan as the delicious pumpkin spice burst onto her tongue.

  “She’s not talking,” Cara said to Rory. “That’s weird. I’ve never seen her not talk.”

  “As soon as the caffeine kicks in she’ll come back to life.” Rory nudged Willa’s coffee closer to her and then backed away like Willa might be a cocked and loaded shotgun.

  “But she doesn’t look tired,” Cara said, staring at Willa. “She looks like how my sister looks when her boyfriend’s on leave from the Army and they boink all night long.”

  Willa choked on her muffin.

  Rory pounded her on the back, flashing a rare grin as Elle and Haley and Pru knocked on the back door.

  Willa came to life with sudden panic. “Don’t let them in!”

  So of course Rory let them in. “Watch out,” her soon-to-be-dead employee said to her best friends. “She’s not fully caffeinated and I think she’s also had a lot of sex.”

  Willa choked again. She glared at everyone, but her best friends were in possession of more muffins and coffee, so she held out her hands. “Gimme.”

  Pru handed everything over. “Sorry I had to bail on girls’ night, but I’m feeling much better.” She studied Willa’s face, head cocked. “Hmm. Keane’s good. He even got rid of the stress wrinkle between her eyes.”

  “Wow,” Haley said, peering in close to see for herself. “You’re right. Sex works better than that ninety-buck wrinkle lotion we all bought that doesn’t work worth shit.”

  Willa glanced at Elle, who was standing there quietly assessing the situation. “I’m going to need you to say something here, Elle. You know, be your usual voice of reason so I don’t murder anyone.”

  “There’s no Netflix in prison,” Elle said.

  “Okay, that’ll do it, thanks.”

  Elle tipped her coffee to Willa’s in a toast of solidarity.

  Willa drank her coffee and let out her biggest fear. “Am I being stupid? Letting another guy in? Is this a mistake?”

  “Is he as good a guy as he seems?” Pru asked.

  Willa thought about it. “He doesn’t like cats and yet he’s taking care of Petunia. He’s financially taking care of his sick aunt even though he barely knows her. He’s got an incredibly demanding career going but he always makes time for me. And . . .”

  “What?” Elle pressed quietly when Willa broke off.

  “He makes me feel good,” she said. “Special.” She felt a little ridiculous even saying it and her face heated.

  But Elle smiled and it was the kind of smile that reached all the way to her eyes. Rare and beautiful. “Well then,” she said, squeezing Willa’s hands. “There’s your answer.”

  “But I think I blew it,” Willa said. “He stayed over last night and I woke up and . . .”

  “Panicked,” Elle said helpfully.

  Willa blew out a sigh and held up her finger and thumb about an inch apart. “Maybe just a very little bit.”

  Elle held up her own two hands, two feet apart. “Or a lot.” She looked at Willa. “I still don’t get why you can’t just enjoy a hot man and hot sex. You can always bail when and if it fizzles out.”

  “But what if it doesn’t fizzle?” Willa asked. “What then?”

  “You enjoy it,” Elle said gently.

  Right. Why hadn’t she thought of that?

  “What did you do?” Haley asked. “Kick him out?”

  “Worse,” Elle said, looking amused.

  Willa put her hands to her hot cheeks. “I ran out of my own place like the hounds of hell were on my heels.”

  Haley bit her lower lip.

  Pru didn’t have the same decorum. She didn’t bother to try to keep her laugh in; she let it out and in fact almost fell over she was laughing so hard.

  Elle shook her head. “I tried to tell her—never leave a hot man alone in your bed.”

  Well, technically he hadn’t been still in bed when she’d left but why had she left again? Willa honestly couldn’t remember her justifications for that, which left the only possible answer.

  She was running scared and that just plain pissed her off about herself. Since when was she a scaredy-cat? She hopped off the counter, pointing at Pru. “You’re off today?”

  “Yes.”

  “You’re officially an employee. Rory will tell you what to do. We’re having a big sale and she’ll need extra hands on deck. I’ll be back!”

  “But why me?” Pru called after her.

  “Because you laughed the hardest.”

  “Well, shit,” Pru said.

  It was still early when Keane got out of his truck, jogged up the stairs to the Vallejo Street house, and quietly shut the door behind him. Coast clear. All he had to do now was get up the stairs to his shower without being seen and—

  “Whoa,” Sass said from behind him.

  Fuck.

  “Mas!” she yelled. “Come look at this.”

  Keane turned to face her, eyes narrowed.

  She smiled sweetly as she looked at her watch. “How nice of you to show up for work today. We’ve been calling you.”

  “I’ve been busy.”

  She ran her gaze down the length of him and came to a stop at his bare feet. “Where are your shoes? Under her bed?”

  Actually, they were in the Dumpster, not that he was about to tell Sass that. He thrust out Petunia’s carrier. “Take this,” he said. “I’m going to shower. I’ll meet you in the office for the morning meeting in ten—”

  Someone knocked on the door and grateful for the interruption, Keane hauled it open.

  Willa stood there chewing on her lower lip, looking a little bit unsettled that he’d opened the door so quickly.

  He didn’t know why he was so surprised. She’d been surprising him continuously from the moment she’d let him into her shop that first morning three weeks ago now and saved his ass by taking Pita.

  “Hey,” she said quietly. “I—” She broke off and looked beyond him.

  Keane turned and realized that Sass was watching avidly. Mason walked into the foyer as well, eyes on his phone as he spoke. “It’s about damn time, boss. You ignored my calls all morning—which is a huge infraction of the rules, as you like to remind us every other second—” He raised his head from his phone and eyed the situation. He winced, turned on his heel, and walked back out.

  Not Sass. She stood there smiling wide. “Hi,” she said, reaching out a hand to Willa. “I’m Sass, Keane’s admin. And you’re Willa, or as we like to say around here, The Amazing Person Who Makes the Boss Smile. We love you, by the way.”

  “Thanks,” Willa said. “I think.”

  “I’ve seen you before,” Sass said. “At O’Riley’s Pub. You were up onstage doing karaoke with two of your friends, singing Wilson Phillips’s ‘Hold On’ like it was your job.”

  Willa grimaced. “Oh boy.”

  Sass smiled. “Yeah, you guys were a lot of fun. If you ever get Keane up there to sing, I’m going to need it recorded.”

  “Okay,” Keane said, pulling Willa inside before turning to Sass. “I’m sure you have to go back to work now.”

  Sass smiled. “Yes, with you. We’re not done with our morning meeting. We were just getting to the why you’ve been ignoring phone calls, texts, and emails, but I’m guessing the reason just showed up.”

  Keane pointed down the hall. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

  “Oh, don’t postpone a meeting for my sake,” Willa said hurriedly.
You’re busy. I’m just going to go—”

  Keane grabbed her hand. “Wait. It’ll only take me a minute to kill Sass—”

  “If I had a dime for every time he said that,” Sass quipped.

  Keane didn’t take his eyes off Willa. “Please?” he added quietly and was relieved when she nodded. He then turned to Sass. She was still smiling at him, the kind of smile that said she was getting a lot of mileage out of this. Reluctantly letting go of Willa, he nodded at Sass to follow him.

  “Don’t start,” he warned as they moved down the hall, hopefully out of hearing range. “I know damn well that if it’d been an emergency, you’d have let me know. You were snooping just now because I’m never late. I don’t pay you to snoop, Sass, so get your ass to work.”

  She kept grinning.

  “Don’t pay you to grin at me either.”

  “Well, honestly,” a woman said. “That’s no way to talk to the people you care about.”

  Keane glanced over into what would eventually be the dining room but at the moment was a blueprint room. Meaning there were several pairs of sawhorses set up with large planks of plywood as makeshift tables. Covering these tables were the blueprints of the building.

  The woman was standing amongst the sawhorses, glaring at him.

  He blew out a sigh. “Mom, it’s called sarcasm. That’s how we show we care.”

  “Well, it’s hurtful,” she said. “I taught you better than that.”

  No, actually, what she’d taught him was to show no feelings at all. He looked at Sass, who’d clearly let his mom in.

  Sass smiled. “Meet the emergency.”

  Keane turned back to his mom. She’d not stopped by any of his jobs for a long time, and in fact, they’d talked just last month, so . . . “What’s wrong?”

  His mom straightened and came toward him. If she noticed his bare feet or the fact that he was still carrying a cat carrier because Sass hadn’t taken it from him, she gave no indication.

  “I wanted to tell you that we’re all done with the rental,” she said. “Which I assume you know because you deposited money into our account. We don’t want money from you, Keane. That wasn’t part of the deal.”

  His parents had both retired two years ago. And because they’d assumed they were the smartest people they knew, they refused his advice for years regarding getting a financial planner. So when they’d invested their funds with a “friend who knows what he’s doing” and that friend took off with all their money, they hadn’t wanted to admit it.

  In fact, Keane had only found all this out when he’d inadvertently learned from a mutual acquaintance that they’d gotten an eviction notice. They’d finally admitted that they were broke and because of that might soon be homeless, but they still refused to take money from him.

  So he’d been forced to let them “work” for him instead. He’d put them up in an apartment building he owned in South Beach. In return they insisted on helping him renovate the place in lieu of paying rent. Just until they got on their feet.

  It’d been a serious pain in his ass because he and his mom had butted heads on every single renovation the building had required.

  But at least they weren’t in the streets. “You could have just called me,” he said.

  His mother nodded. “I did. Your admin said you weren’t taking calls and suggested I stop by.”

  Sass slid him a . . . well, sassy look. He returned the volley with a “you’re fired” look but she just smiled at him serenely.

  She knew as well as he did that she was the glue. His glue. It would be comforting if he didn’t want to strangle her more than half the time.

  “Anyway . . .” His mother made a big show of holding out a set of keys. “Wanted to give these back to you.”

  He didn’t take them. “Mom, you can stay there. You don’t have to go.”

  “But we’re done with the work.”

  “Stay there,” he repeated. He didn’t want them out on the streets. He didn’t want to have to worry about them. “It’s no big deal.”

  “No big deal?” she asked, looking as if he’d just suggested she murdered kittens for a living. “You giving us a handout is no big deal? Well, I’m glad to know we mean so little to you then.”

  “You know that’s not what I meant.”

  “I’ll have you know we have plenty of other options,” she said stiffly. “Your sisters, for one. Janine wants us in her house with her. With her child, so that we could be a part of their lives. Rachel would have us as well.”

  Okay, so he stood corrected. She absolutely could make this more difficult. And he knew firsthand that his sisters were just making noise with the offer to host them. Janine’s husband would probably run for the hills if that happened. James was a decent enough guy but he was smart enough to have hard limits, and living with the elder Winterses was definitely a hard limit.

  “By all means,” Keane said. “If that’s what would make you happy. But the offer to stay in my apartment building stands.”

  Her lips tightened.

  And because he wasn’t a complete asshole, he sighed. “Listen, I really could use someone to manage the place, to keep up with the building and the renters’ needs.”

  She stared at him for a beat, clearly torn between choking on her own pride or calling his bluff calling hers. Finally she snatched the keys back from his held-out palm and shoved them in her pocket.

  “We’ll keep a careful accounting of our work, crediting it back for rent,” she said.

  “Mom, I trust you.”

  “Expect monthly reports,” she said.

  The equivalent of a hug and kiss and an “I love you, son.”

  She turned to the door and then stopped. Still facing the door, she said, “And I know that’s Sally’s cat. You’re helping her too.”

  “She’s family,” he said and then he lied out his ass. “And the cat’s no problem.”

  “You’re doing more than just taking care of her cat,” his mom said. “Sally called me yesterday and told me everything.”

  Keane let out a low breath. “Then you know that me helping her is the least I can do.”

  She didn’t say anything for a long beat, did nothing but take a small sniff that struck terror in his heart.

  Was she . . . crying? He’d never seen her lose it and truthfully, he’d rather someone ripped out his fingernails one by one than see it now. “Mom—”

  “I’m fine.” She sniffed again and then still talking to the door softly said, “I was the teacher, for twenty-five years. But sometimes you teach me things I didn’t expect.”

  He stared at her, stunned.

  “Well,” she said with a nod. “I’m off. I’ll call you, keep you updated.”

  “You don’t have to—”

  “I’ll call you,” she repeated and he realized that she was trying, in the only way she knew how, to stay in his life.

  “That would be nice,” he said. “I’ll call you too, okay?”

  Her voice was soft and there was an unmistakable sense of relief in her voice. “Okay.”

  And then she was gone.

  He turned and caught the flash of someone ducking behind a doorway. A petite, insatiably curious redheaded someone. Slowly she peeked back out and winced when her eyes locked on him.

  She was cautious of getting in too deep with him and besides the fact that he’d come right out and told her he didn’t do deep, she was right to be wary. Giving in to this thing between them would be insanity, and having his mother remind him of the way he was wired, how the entire family was wired—with an utter lack of the giving-someone-your-heart gene—had been a wake-up call. Willa was dodging a bullet here and she didn’t even know it.

 
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