The trouble with mistlet.., p.24
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.24

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  “You okay?” she asked quietly.

  Was he? He had no idea, not that he was about to admit it. “Yeah.” He thought maybe he could see some pity in her gaze and he pretty much hated everything about that so he gave a vague wave at the place around him. “I’ve really got to get to work.”

  She nodded, but didn’t move. Instead she clasped her hands tight together and held his gaze. “I wanted to explain my abrupt departure this morning. It’s just that when I woke up wrapped around you like one of those amazingly delicious warm pretzels at AT&T Park, I . . .”

  “Panicked?”

  “No,” she said. “Well, okay, yes, but only for a few minutes. I don’t regret last night, Keane. I just wanted you to know that. I’m sorry—”

  “Willa, stop,” he said, interrupting her. Both this morning with her on top of the visit with his mom had left him feeling a little hollow and far too raw to deal with any more heavy emotions. “Forget it, okay? It was nothing.”

  She looked a little stunned at that and it took him a second to realize she thought he was saying what they’d shared was nothing. “Not what I meant,” he said, but since he didn’t know what he did mean, he fell silent.

  She nodded like she knew though, which he was glad about. Someone should know what the fuck was going on here. His tool belt was lying on one of the sawhorses and he put it on, hopefully signaling he was good with no further conversation.

  She took a deep breath. “If this is about me hearing that conversation with your mom—”

  “It’s not.”

  “Because it’s not your fault how she treats you,” she said.

  “Yes, it is. I was a rotten kid, Willa. I was,” he said firmly when she opened her mouth. “I get that some of it was because I didn’t get a lot of positive attention, but that’s no excuse.”

  She was arms crossed now, defensive for him, clearly not willing to believe the worst of him, all of which did something painful and also a little wonderful inside his chest.

  “What could you possibly have done that was so bad?”

  “For one, I was a complete shit. Even after I graduated high school. They gave me tuition money to complement a partial football scholarship for two years, until I got injured and blew the scholarship. I hated every second of school, by the way. So when they gave me tuition for year three, I quit and used the money for the down payment for my first renovation project.”

  “I take it they didn’t approve.”

  “I didn’t tell them for several years,” he admitted.

  Her eyes widened.

  “See?” he asked. “A complete shit. I paid them back with interest, but the point is that as a result of my own actions, they don’t trust me very much.”

  “Not everyone is made for the academic life.”

  He shook his head. “Don’t make excuses for me, Willa.”

  “Well someone has to give you a break,” she said, tossing up her hands. “You’ve worked pretty hard to help your aunt and your family. You’ve worked hard to make something of yourself and—” She broke off and looked at him as if she’d never seen him before.

  “What?”

  “Oh my God,” she whispered. “I just realized something. I accused you of not being able to attach. But clearly you can, and deeply.”

  He started to shake his head but stopped because given his growing attachment to her, not to mention some extraordinarily deep emotions on the same subject, she was right.

  “And not only can you obviously love and love deeply,” she said slowly, putting a hand to her chest like it hurt. “You can even hold on to it. Maybe even better than me. Hell, definitely better than me.”

  His chest got tight at the thought of her believing that about herself. “Willa—”

  “I know, right? Not a super comfortable feeling.” She paused when from inside his pocket, his phone went off.

  It’d been doing so for the past half hour. Subcontractors, clients . . . probably Sass as well. And even as he thought it, a well-dressed couple parked out front.

  Clients with whom he had a meeting with in . . . he looked at his watch. Shit. Right now.

  “The real world calls,” Willa said and took a step back.

  “This is my real world,” he said. “They can wait.”

  “Keane,” Marco Delgado, a longtime client, called out with a smile. “Good to see you, my man.”

  “It’s okay,” Willa said as she moved farther away.

  Kind of the story of his life really.

  “You understood this morning when I needed to get to work,” she said, “and I understand this.”

  And then she was gone.

  Shit. Whelp, he was happy to know she understood. He just wished he knew exactly what she understood and if she would explain it to him.

  Chapter 23

  #SquadGoals

  Willa went to the shop. The shop had always been her escape, her joy, her first and only love.

  But as she walked in with all the Christmas lights sparkling and a customer’s dog barking at her stuffed Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer sitting on the kitty-litter display, and Rory smiling and handling customers from two different corners of the place, she didn’t feel the usual calm wash over her.

  She hadn’t felt calm since she’d woken up that morning but especially not after overhearing the conversation between Keane and his mom. Because now she knew an uncomfortable truth about herself. She’d been cruising along with Keane, secure in the knowledge that he wasn’t interested in love, but there was a fatal flaw with that.

  It was all on her. She was the one with the issues.

  She hadn’t seen that coming.

  Luckily her day was long, not allowing her much time to think or dwell. And at the end of it, she looked around for more to do but there wasn’t anything. And yet she didn’t want to go home. Going home alone would remind her that she was . . .

  Well, alone.

  So she went to the pub, where Finn immediately caught her eye and gestured her over. “Try this,” he said, handing her a mug. “Homemade whipped cream over the best, most amazing hot chocolate ever invented.”

  “How many ways are there to make hot chocolate?”

  “Only one way,” he said. “My way.” He gestured to the mug. “It’s a new recipe, a surprise for Pru. Tell me what you think.”

  She sipped and he was right. It was the most amazing hot chocolate ever invented. “Oh my God.”

  He smiled. “Yeah?”

  “Oh yeah. It’s orgasmic.”

  He grimaced and took the mug away from her. “Not in my pub.”

  She could see Spence and Archer in the back arguing over the darts and knew she could go back there and join them. Knew too that Finn would make her his famous chicken wings if she wanted. But for the first time in as long as she could remember, she didn’t want to be here either.

  Finn’s smile vanished. “Hey. What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Willa.” He leaned in. “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter. I know you better than just about anyone. Something’s wrong.” He studied her a minute. “Is it Keane? Do I need to beat the shit out of him?”

  She choked out a laugh. “You think you could?”

  “No, but I could get Archer to do it. Archer could make him disappear and no one’d ever be the wiser. Just say the word.”

  “No!” She laughed again, but it faded fast. “No,” she repeated firmly and shook her head. “This one’s on me.”

  “Fine. We’ll help you bury the body. Just name the time and place.”

  “You’re not even going to ask me why?”

  “I don’t need to know why.”

  That was the thing about Finn, and the others as well. They loved her like family should. Unconditionally. Without question. No doubt. No hesitation.

  No qualifiers.

  And even though Finn was just teasing, she knew if she ever needed something, anything at all, he’d be there for her.

  Always.
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  Her throat tightened because she loved knowing that, but at the moment it wasn’t what she needed.

  He caught her hand as she slid off the barstool. “Seriously, what can I do?” he asked quietly.

  “You’ve already done it.” She brushed a kiss over his jaw. “Thanks.”

  She took herself to the rooftop. She climbed the fire escape and then stilled as she was bombarded with flashes of the last time she’d been here. Keane’s hands holding her over him, his mouth at her ear whispering dirty sweet nothings, his hard body driving hers . . .

  The breath escaped her lungs and her knees wobbled.

  She’d come here to be alone to wallow, but now all she could do was ache . . .

  When the stairwell door opened and a pair of obviously women’s heels clicked their way across the rubber composite, she sighed. “Unless you have food with you, go away.”

  “Who do you think I am?” Elle, of course. “I’ve got food and wine,” she said. Always prepared, she stopped next to where Willa sat right on the rooftop without anything to protect her clothing and shook her head. “Clothes deserve respect, honey. Serious respect.”

  “I’m in Levi’s,” Willa pointed out.

  “Levi’s deserve respect right along with Tory Burch.” Elle searched her bag and came up with a Cosmo magazine. She tossed this to the ground and then carefully sat on it. “This is how much I love you. I’m sitting on the ground in a dress and heels.” She handed over a box of Finn’s wings.

  “What’s this?” Willa asked.

  “A bribe.”

  And that’s when Pru popped her head up over the ledge from the fire escape. “Is the coast clear?”

  Elle waved her over. Willa knew Elle hadn’t used the fire escape herself because one, climbing it in heels was a death sentence, and two, she only did things where she could look cool and gorgeous, and no one looked cool or gorgeous climbing the fire escape.

  Pru climbed over the ledge, followed by Haley.

  “I’m not in the mood to talk,” Willa warned them.

  “I remember a time when I said the exact same thing to you,” Pru said and sat on Willa’s other side.

  “And I respected your wishes and left you alone.”

  Pru laughed good and long over that. “Hell, no, you didn’t. You sat right next to me and held my hand while we marathoned Say Yes to The Dress. Elle got drunk.”

  “I did not,” Elle said.

  “Right,” Pru said. “That was me. My point is, we’re not leaving you alone.”

  Haley was beaming at them. “You know what this is right here? It’s squad goals.”

  Elle pointed at her. “You need to cut back on Instagram.”

  Willa took the box of wings and dug in. “You guys don’t have to stay. I’m not sharing the wings and there’s nothing to watch.”

  “Well now that’s just an insult to the universe,” Haley said and pointed to the sky.

  Which was a glorious blanket of black velvet littered with diamonds as far as the eye could see.

  It was gorgeous, Willa could admit. “I’m pretty sure the universe is feminine. A male would’ve messed that all up.”

  Haley snorted in agreement.

  “So men suck,” Elle said. “What’s new about that?”

  Pru, the only one of them in a sturdy, stable, loving relationship, shook her head in disagreement. “Men are just flawed, is all. And that’s a good thing.”

  “How?” Willa asked. “How in the world is that a good thing?”

  “Hello, have you never heard of makeup sex?”

  Willa thought about sex with Keane and sighed. It was pretty amazing. Off-the-charts amazing. She could only imagine what makeup sex would be like . . .

  “They don’t mean to be dumbasses,” Pru said. “But sometimes they just can’t help it. That’s just how they’re wired. But I’ve gotta say, Willa, Keane seems like a really good guy.”

  “You’re certainly glowing like I’ve never seen you glow,” Haley said.

  Everyone looked Willa over closely and she swallowed a bite of delicious chicken wing and rolled her eyes. “If I’m glowing, it’s from sweating in the shop all day.”

  “You haven’t done anything for yourself in far too long,” Haley said. “You should do Keane.”

  Everyone burst out laughing and Haley shook her head. “Okay, not what I meant. But hey, whatever works.”

  “I think I need a moment from . . . doing Keane,” Willa said.

  “Why?” Pru asked.

  Wasn’t that just the question? She knew she was giving off wishy-washy vibes but she wasn’t being wishy-washy so much as she was going after one desire while protecting the other.

  Meaning she wanted Keane in her bed. Oh how she wanted that . . . while somehow also keeping her heart protected.

  The ship might have sailed there, she thought . . .

  Yeah, it was too late. And if she’d been smart, she would have cut her losses before now. But she so loved being intimate with Keane, loved everything about it, and she’d had this fantasy that she could somehow keep the goodness of that separate from her growing emotions for him.

  That ship had sailed too.

  “It’s a new development,” she admitted. “See, in the beginning it was him who didn’t want anything too serious, while I was ready to find a partner.”

  “And now?” Elle asked.

  “And now . . .” Willa closed her eyes. “I want to keep sleeping with him but I don’t want to call it a relationship. What does that make me?”

  “A man,” Elle said.

  “Honey, I don’t see the problem,” Pru said over their laughter. “He’s not going to get attached, you just said so. Go for it. But I have to warn you that sometimes really great sex turns into really great intimacy, which can then turn into a really great relationship before you even realize it.”

  Willa shook her head. She’d never been in a really great relationship; no need to start believing in that now. “I don’t think we can move forward without a conversation. I think he wants to define things. We were on the brink of that this morning but luckily his work got in the way.”

  “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” Haley said. “Call him over and then take off your top and distract him from talking. What?” she said when everyone just stared at her. “Willa has great boobs.”

  Elle eyed Willa’s boobs critically. “It’s true. Woman pay big bucks for a rack like that.”

  Willa looked down at herself. She was short. A more polite word was petite. But in height only because everywhere else she wasn’t dainty. She had curves. Hips. The aforementioned boobs. Even her stomach was a little too curvy to suit her but no amount of sit-ups or exercising seemed to help that.

  Or at least she was pretty sure sit-ups and exercise wouldn’t help. “He’s too smart to fall for that. He’ll see right through the distraction technique.” She dropped her head to her knees. “Damn. I was so sure this wasn’t in danger of going anywhere, that he wasn’t relationship material . . .”

 
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