The trouble with mistlet.., p.27
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.27

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
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  and scared.

  She didn’t want to end the night like this.

  She hauled the door open again, Keane’s name on her lips, and there he still stood, hands braced up above him on the doorjamb, head bowed.

  He lifted his head, his expression dialed to frustrated male.

  “Um,” she said. “I think I might have overreacted about the key.”

  He just looked at her. Not speaking.

  She had that effect on men.

  “I really am all sorts of messed up,” she admitted in a soft whisper.

  His eyes warmed a little but his mouth stayed serious. “Well, you’re not alone there.”

  She didn’t want to, she really didn’t, but she let out a small laugh. And then she tipped her head down and stared at her feet and felt her eyes sting.

  For so long she had been just that. Alone. Yes, she had friends, dear friends who were more like her family than . . . well, than any of her blood family had ever been.

  But friends didn’t sleep in her bed and keep her warm and make her heart and soul soar. Friends didn’t give her the best orgasms of her life, even better than her handheld shower massager.

  Now she had this guy standing right here in front of her, a smart, loyal, sexy-as-hell guy whose smile took her places she’d never been before. He wasn’t into messy emotions but even so, and even knowing she was, he was still standing there. Baffled. Irritated. Frustrated.

  But still standing there.

  For her.

  “You’re thinking so hard your hair is smoking,” he said.

  She was surprised she hadn’t gone up in flames. All she could do was stare at him, more than a little shocked at the intensity shining from his eyes.

  He really did want more.

  And if it was true, if he really wanted in her damn life as he’d so eloquently said, then . . . well, then there wasn’t anything holding them back. Not a single thing.

  Except, of course, herself.

  Her heart had started a dull thudding, echoing in her ears. “You’re not ready for this,” she whispered.

  He smiled, but it was filled with grim understanding and not humor. “You don’t get to tell me what I am or am not ready for, Willa. And in any case, what you really mean is that you’re not ready, isn’t that right?”

  She sucked in some air, but she shouldn’t have been surprised that he called her out on this. He wasn’t one to hide from a damn thing. “I want to be—does that count?”

  “For a lot, actually,” he said. “You know where to find me.” He brushed a warm, sweet kiss across her mouth and then he was gone.

  Keane walked down the stairs of Willa’s building, not sure how to feel. This wasn’t how he’d seen the evening going. If things had gone his way, he’d be stripping Willa out of her clothes right now.

  He thought about how they’d taken each other to places he’d sure as hell never been, and he wanted to go there again. He’d thought, hoped, Willa was coming to feel the same way.

  Crazy, considering that until a few weeks ago he could never have imagined that he’d want a relationship. The irony of the fact that he and Willa had mentally changed positions didn’t escape him.

  Damn. He’d known better than to get attached but he’d gotten sidetracked by a pair of sweet green eyes and a smile that always, always, put one on his lips as well.

  Willa made him feel things and he’d gotten swept away by that. But her entire life had been one big Temporary Situation; foster care as a kid, working at the pet shop where animals came in and out of her life but didn’t stay, men—when and if she let them in, that was.

  And for a little while at least, he’d been in, but was starting to realize that had all been an illusion, just hopeful thinking on his part. Because though it was true he’d not done permanent any more than she had, he at least wasn’t fundamentally opposed to trying. Apparently, it only took the right person.

  Problem was, that person had to want it back.

  With a gnawing hole in his chest, he went home to Vallejo Street. Yeah, dammit, home. He’d gotten attached to this place every bit as much as he had Willa.

  Both had been bad ideas.

  He looked around at the big, old, beautiful house that reflected back at him some of the best work he’d ever done. He could sell it in a heartbeat and make enough of a profit from the sale to slow his life way the fuck down. He’d have time for the things that he’d never had time for.

  Playing pool.

  Sitting on rooftops star-gazing.

  A woman in his bed every night, the same woman.

  Things he’d never wanted before, but wanted now. Craved now, the way he used to crave only work. In fact, for long years in his life, the physical aggression of his job had kept him calm. Pounding nails. Carting hundreds of pounds of drywall up and down flights of stairs.

  That was no longer the case.

  He was a guy who prided himself on staying true to himself. He’d always known that he wasn’t the guy who wanted a white picket fence, a woman wearing his diamond, and two point five kids. He’d never seen himself craving any of that.

  But there was no longer any solace in the thought of being on his own for the rest of his life. And if he was being honest with himself, he could also admit he’d changed his mind about love and commitment as well.

  Shitty timing on that . . .

  Restless, determined to go back to his original plans, he strode through the rooms and headed into his office, where he called Sass.

  “Somebody better be dead,” she answered sleepily.

  “I need you to get Vallejo on the market.”

  This got him a load of silence.

  “Sass?”

  “You’re calling me at”—there was a rustling, like she was sitting up in bed—“midnight to tell me you want to sell your house?”

  “I was always going to sell this place,” he said. “You know that.”

  “Noooooo, you weren’t. I mean yes, you pretended you would,” she said, sounding far more awake now. “But we all knew . . .”

  “What?”

  “That you’d finally found yourself a home you wanted to keep instead of living like a vagabond. Especially now that you and Willa are a thing. She loves the place too—”

  “You’re wrong,” he said flatly. “On all counts. Get the place on the market.”

  This time the beat of silence was shorter. “It’s your life,” she said and disconnected on him.

  “It is,” he said to the cat who was sitting at the foot of his bed, eyes sharp and on his face, tail switching about. “My life.”

  Pita stopped twitching her tail, said her piece with a simple but short and succinct “mew,” and stalked up the bed toward him.

  “We’ve discussed this. I don’t share my bed with cats.”

  Not giving a single shit, she walked up his legs and then leapt to his chest, where she sat, calm as you please.

  “No,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

  She lifted a paw and began to wash her face.

  “Cat, I’m serious.”

  She changed things up, washing behind her ears now.

  “If you start going at your lady town, it’s all over,” he warned.

  Still on his chest, she lowered her paw, turned in a circle, daintily curled up in a ball, and closed her eyes.

  “Not happening,” he said.

  She didn’t move.

  And neither did he.

  Chapter 26

  #MagicallyDelicious

  The next morning Willa lay in bed staring at the ceiling feeling the entire weight of her heart sitting heavily in her gut.

  No regrets, she told herself. She’d done the right thing being honest with Keane, for both of them.

  Trying to believe that, she got up and realized with some shock that it was the day before Christmas Eve. Normally this was her favorite time of the year. She loved the renewed sense of energy and anticipation the city of San Francisco put off, loved the smiles on
the faces of everyone who came into her shop, loved the magic of the holiday, loved everything about it.

  But her cheer was definitely missing as she quickly and quietly got ready for work.

  Rory was still asleep on the couch. After Willa had entered her apartment last night to find Rory waiting up for her, she’d had to set aside the feeling of devastation about pushing Keane away and paste a smile on her face.

  Rory had needed that of her. They’d sat together and talked. Rory’d had a little meltdown, admitting she missed her family, that she wished she hadn’t so completely messed it up with them.

  Willa had asked her to pretty please consider going home for Christmas and make peace with them. When Rory said she couldn’t get a ride to Tahoe on this short of notice, Willa had once again promised to work it out for her. The girl didn’t have much in the way of family, but there was a lot of love and forgiveness there if she would only reach out.

  Her own heart had squeezed hard at that, almost as if the poor organ was desperately trying to tell her that there was something in there for her to think about as well.

  Now in the light of day, she knew she wasn’t caffeinated enough to go there. She tiptoed past the couch, thinking she’d handle the morning shop rush on her own today.

  An early Christmas present to Rory.

  Her first grooming client was a feisty little pug named Monster who had terrible asthma. He whistled on the inhale and snorted on the exhale, making him sound like an eighty-year-old man smoking and climbing stairs at the same time.

  As soon as she got Monster in the tub, Elle and Haley showed up with coffee and muffins.

  “Whoa,” Haley said, stopping short, eyes on the pug. “That’s the homeliest dog I’ve ever seen.”

  Monster tipped his head up, his huge black eyes on Willa as he snorted for air. She kissed him on the top of his wrinkly head. “Don’t listen to her. You’re adorable. And don’t ask me how last night went,” she warned the girls.

  “Don’t have to ask,” Elle said. “You’re not wearing your just-got-laid smile.”

  “It’s because you didn’t take the handcuffs,” Haley said. “Isn’t it?”

  Willa lifted her hands off Monster, his signal to shake. Water flew all over them. Well, all over herself and Haley. No water dared to hit Elle.

  Haley squealed and Monster seemed to grin with pride as he shook again.

  “You’re only egging him on,” Willa warned, laughing.

  “Dogs can’t be egged on like that.”

  “He’s a male,” Elle said, still completely dry. “He was born to be egged on. Now talk to us,” she said to Willa.

  Willa sighed, and leaving out the part where she’d let Keane walk away, told them about the Andy portion of the previous evening.

  Both Elle and Haley were suitably horrified, but when Rory walked in they pretended they’d been discussing the weather.

  Looking surprisingly well slept, Rory stared at them suspiciously. “Willa told you about last night, didn’t she?”

  Elle and Haley ’fessed up and fussed all over Rory. The girl pretended to hate every minute of it but no one was fooled; she soaked up every drop of love and warmth that came her way.

  When the door in the front of the shop rang, Willa left her friends to continue spoiling Rory and, holding a towel-wrapped Monster tucked in the crook of her arm, headed out there.

  And then nearly tripped over her own two feet at the sight of Keane, looking deadly sexy in a pair of dark jeans, an aviator jacket, and sunglasses.

  He smiled at Monster. “Cute.”

  Just looking at him made Willa ache so she very carefully didn’t look right at him. “You need me to watch Pita?” she asked.

  “No.”

  When he didn’t say anything else she finally met his gaze. A huge mistake, in the same way looking directly into the sun was a huge mistake. It was painful. Even more painful was the apology she owed him. “Keane?”

  “Yeah?”

  “I’m sorry I had a little freak-out about your key.”

  “Key?” came a low whisper from behind them. Pru. “Holy cow, what did we miss?”

  When Willa turned to look, Pru was indeed there; she must’ve come in the back door. Now all three of her friends plus Rory were crowded in the doorway, eavesdropping like a bunch of little boys.

  “Whoops,” Haley said, wincing when she caught Willa’s gaze. “Excuse us, we’re just . . .” Looking a little panicked, she turned to the others, eyes wide. “What are we just?”

  “Um . . .” Pru said.

  Elle shook her head in disgust at them. “Amateurs. We’re eavesdropping, and shamelessly. And it’d be helpful if one of you would actually repeat whatever happened last night so we know what’s going on.”

  Willa stared at them. “Are you kidding me?”

  “Honey, you know I don’t kid,” Elle said.

  Rory was looking horrified. “Ohmigod. I think they’re fighting because of me. I ruined their night.”

  Willa’s mad turned to guilt. “No, honey, that’s not it. It has nothing to do with you.”

  “No, but it must,” Rory insisted. “Because everything was fine between you two—until I got stupid and needed you, needed you both because Andy would’ve hurt you, Willa, I know it, and . . .” Her voice cracked. “That would have been my fault.”

  Elle wrapped an arm around Rory and hugged her close, but her eyes never left Willa and Keane. “Not your fault,” Elle said firmly. “Not last night, and not whatever’s happening here. In fact, these two silly kids are going to take their little discussion to Willa’s office and not come back out until everything’s fine and everyone’s smiling because it’s Christmas Eve Eve, dammit.”

  “Will you?” Rory asked Willa, looking heartbreakingly unsure. “Will you two go work it out?”

  She was asking because nothing in her life had ever worked out before. Willa knew this and felt the air leave her lungs in one big whoosh. No way was she going to let Rory give up on emotions. On love. No way would she be the one to make her lose faith. “Of course,” she said, knowing she could pretend with the best of them, and she’d make Keane do the same. Then she’d also make him promise to give her some space until her heart didn’t threaten to burst at the sight of him. With that plan in mind, she handed Monster off to Pru and gave Keane a nudge toward her tiny office.

  But Keane, of course, couldn’t be nudged anywhere. He was big and strong and as hardheaded as . . . well, as her. He slid her a gaze that was partial amusement that she thought she could push him, and part challenge.

  He wanted to be asked.

  God save her from annoying, big, badass alphas. She blew out a breath and, very aware of Rory’s concerned gaze on her, smiled through her gritted teeth. “Will you please come into my office so we can”—she glanced at Rory, even sent her another smile—“work things out?”

  “Would love to,” Keane said easily. He even took her hand and led the way.

  She allowed it, but the moment they crossed the threshold over her office door, she shut it and opened her mouth. “Look, I know I
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