The trouble with mistlet.., p.3
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.3

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  poodles to wear. Yes, tuxes. Just because she was in on the joke that South Bark Mutt Stop made more money on tiaras and weddings and gimmicks than actual grooming or supplies didn’t mean she couldn’t take the wishes of her clients seriously.

  And hey, who knew, maybe if she ever got pets of her own other than the fosters she sometimes took in, and if she had more money than she knew what to do with, she might want a wedding for her dogs too. Although she sincerely doubted it. In her world, love had always been fleeting and temporary—sort of the opposite of what all the pomp and circumstance of a wedding conveyed.

  Still, game to believe in lasting love as a possibility, at least for others, Willa dropped the giant poodle faux tux front over her own head and looked in the mirror. “What do we think?”

  “Very cute,” Pru said. “Now jump up and down and do whatever it is dogs do to make sure it holds up.”

  Willa jumped up and down like she was a dog in a show, holding her hands out in front of her, wrists bent as she hopped around to get the full effect of the tux. The girls were all still laughing when someone knocked on her front door.

  Once again it was ten minutes before nine and in mid–dance step Willa stilled, experiencing a rush of déjà vu. The look on everyone’s faces confirmed what she needed to know. Still, she slowly turned to the door hoping she was wrong.

  Nope.

  Not wrong.

  Keane Winters stood at the door, watching her.

  “Perfect,” she said, her dignity in tatters. “How much do you think he saw?”

  “Everything,” Elle said.

  “You should get the door,” Pru said. “He looks every bit as hot as Rory said, but he also looks like he’s in a rush.”

  “I’m not opening the door,” Willa hissed, yanking off the tux front. “Not until you guys go. Go out the back and hurry!”

  No one hurried. In fact, no one so much as budged.

  Keane knocked for a second time and when Willa turned to face him again, he went brows up, the picture of gorgeous impatience.

  “Well, honestly,” Pru said. “Do men learn that look at birth or what?”

  “Yes,” Elle said thoughtfully. “They do. Willa, honey, don’t you dare rush over there. You take your sweet-ass time and make sure to swipe that panic off your face and smile while you’re at it. Won’t do you any good to let him know he’s getting to you.”

  “See,” Willa said to Haley and Pru. “At least one of you isn’t influenced by dark, knowing eyes and a darker smile and a pair of ohmigod-sexy guy jeans.”

  “Okay, I didn’t say that,” Elle said. “But I’m not so much influenced as curious as hell. Get the door, Wills. Let’s see what he’s made of.”

  “He just saw me dancing like a poodle,” she said.

  “Exactly, and you didn’t scare him off. He’s got to be made of stern stuff.”

  Willa sighed and headed to the door.

  Again Keane held the pink bedazzled cat carrier, which should have made him look ridiculous. Instead it somehow upped his testosterone levels. His sharp eyes were on her but they turned warm in a way that melted her right through her center as she moved toward him. She stopped with the glass door between them, hands on hips, hoping she looked irritated even if that wasn’t quite what she was feeling.

  His gaze lowered from her face to run over her body, which gave her another unwelcome rush of heat. Dammit. Now she was irritated and aroused—not a good combo.

  His mouth quirked at the saying on her apron that read Dear Santa, I Can Explain.

  Drawing a deep breath, she opened the door. “You’ve got Petunia again. I hope that means your great-aunt Sally isn’t still sick.”

  He looked surprised that she’d remembered his aunt’s name, or that she’d care. “I don’t know,” he said a little gruffly. “She left me a message saying that I was in charge for the rest of the week but for two days now Pita’s been happily destroying my jobsite. I’m throwing myself on your mercy here. Can you help?”

  Wow. He must be really desperate since he was actually asking and not assuming. But since Petunia was a sweetheart, she knew she’d do it.

  “I’ll even tell you where I went to high school,” he said, adding a smile that was shockingly charming.

  Wow. He hadn’t lost his touch when it came to turning it on. “Not necessary,” she said, painfully aware of their audience.

  Keane’s attention was suddenly directed upward, just above her head. She followed his line of sight and found a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the overhead display of small, portable doggy pools. Mistletoe? What the hell? She glanced behind her and what do you know, suddenly Rory and Cara were a flurry of movement racing around looking very, very busy. “When did the mistletoe go up?” she asked them. “And why?”

  “FOMO,” Cara said from behind the counter.

  “Fear of missing out,” Rory translated. “She was hoping a hot guy would come in and the mistletoe would give her an excuse.”

  Willa narrowed her eyes and her two soon-to-be-dead employees scattered again.

  “Interesting,” Keane said, looking amused.

  “I’m not kissing you.”

  His mouth curved. “If you take Pita for the day, I’ll kiss you.”

  “Not necessary,” she said, gratified no one could see her heart doing the two-step in her ears. “I’ll take Petunia for the day. No kiss required or wanted.”

  Liar, liar . . .

  Keane stepped inside. And because she didn’t step back far enough, they very nearly touched. His hair was a little damp, she couldn’t help but notice, like maybe he’d just showered. He smelled of sexy guy soap, a.k.a. amazing. He wore faded jeans with a rip along one thigh and another long-sleeved T-shirt with SF Builders on the pec, so her guess that he was in construction seemed correct.

  He also was covered in cat hair.

  From right behind him one of her regulars came in. Janie Sharp was in her thirties, had five kids under the age of ten, worked as a schoolteacher and was continuously late, harried, exhausted, and desperate.

  Today, her three youngest were running around her in circles at full speed, screaming as they chased each other while Janie held a fishbowl high, trying to avoid spilling as she was continuously jostled. “I know,” she yelled to Willa. “I’m early. But I’ll have to kill myself if you don’t help me out this morning.”

  This was a common refrain from Janie. “As long as you don’t leave your kids,” Willa said. Also a common refrain. At the odd sound from Keane, she glanced over at him. “She’s only kidding about killing herself,” she said. “But I’m not kidding about her kids.”

  Janie nodded. “They’re devil spawn.”

  “Names?” Keane asked.

  Janie blinked at him as if just seeing him for the first time. Her eyes glazed over a little bit and she might’ve drooled. “Dustin, Tanner, and Lizzie,” she said faintly.

  Keane snapped his fingers and the kids stopped running in circles around Janie. They stopped making noise. They stopped breathing.

  Keane pointed at the first one. “Dustin or Tanner?”

  “Tanner,” the little boy said and shoved his thumb in his mouth.

  Keane looked at the other two and they both started talking at once. He held up a finger and pointed at the little girl.

  “I’m an angel,” she said breathlessly. “My daddy says so.”

  “Did you know that angels look out for the people they care about?” Keane asked her. “They’re in charge.”

  The little girl got a sly look on her face. “So I getta be in charge of Tan and Dust?”

  “You look out for them.” He turned his gaze on the two boys. “And in turn, you look out for her. Nothing should happen to her on your watch, ever. You get me?”

  The two boys bobbed their heads up and down.

  Janie stared down at her three quiet, respectful kids in utter shock. “It’s a Christmas miracle come early,” she whispered in awe and met Keane’s gaze. “Do you baby
sit?”

  Keane just smiled and for a moment, it stunned the entire room. He had a hell of a smile. One that brought to mind hot, long, deep, drugging kisses.

  And more.

  So much more . . . “No,” Willa said and took Janie’s fishbowl. “You’re not giving your kids to a perfect stranger.”

  “You got the perfect part right,” Janie murmured and shook it off. “Okay, so we’re going to Napa for an overnight. Can I leave you Fric and Frac?”

  “Yes, and you know I’ll take very good care of them,” Willa promised and gave Janie a hug. “Get some rest.”

  When Janie was gone, Keane went brows up. “Fish? You board fish?”

  “Babysit,” she corrected, eyes narrowed. “Are you judging me?”

  He shook his head. “I just brought you the cat from hell. I’m in no position to judge.”

  She gave a rough laugh and his gaze locked on her mouth, which gave her another quick zap of awareness.

  “Thanks,” he said. “For taking Pita today. It means a lot.”

  From behind the counter came a low “aw” and then a “shh!” that had her sending her friends a “shut it” look.

  Keane swiveled to look too but as soon as he did, Elle, Pru, and Haley suddenly had their heads bowed over their phones.

  Rory came through carrying another case of feed and took in Willa and Keane’s close proximity. “Nice,” she said. “I’m happy to see you came to your senses and gave up the no-men decree.”

  Willa narrowed her eyes.

  “Oh, right,” Rory said, slapping her own forehead. “Keep that to yourself, Rory. Almost forgot.”

  Keane slid Willa an amused look. “No-men decree?”

  “Never you mind.” She set the fishbowl on the counter and reached for Petunia. “You know the deal, right?”

  “You mean where I pay double for being an ass and you pretend not to like me?” He flashed a lethal smile. “Yeah, same terms.”

  “I meant be here before closing.” She sighed. “And I’m not going to bill you double.”

  His smile turned into a grin. “See? You do like me.”

  And then he was gone.

  Willa turned to her friends and employees, all of whom were watching him go.

  “That’s a really great ass,” Pru said.

  “I agree,” Haley said. “And I don’t even like men.”

  Willa shrugged. “I didn’t notice. I don’t like him.”

  Everyone burst out laughing.

  “We’d correct you,” Elle said, still smiling, “but you’re too stubborn and obstinate to see reason on the best of days and I don’t think this is one of those . . .”

  Yeah, yeah . . . She narrowed her eyes because they were still laughing, clearly believing she was totally fooling herself about not liking Keane.

  And the worst part was, she knew it too.

  Chapter 3

  #BahHumbug

  Keane Winters was used to crazy-busy and crazy-long days. Today in particular though, thanks to subcontractors not doing what they’d been contracted to do and the weather going to hell in the way of a crazy thunderstorm that intermittently knocked out electricity. And let’s not forget the time-and-money-consuming detour to replace his phone and laptop thanks to his aunt’s cat. At least she looked like a cat but Keane was pretty sure she was really the antichrist.

  His phone buzzed and he dropped his tool belt to pull it from his pocket. One of his guys had sent him a link from the San Francisco Chronicle.

  Keane Winters, one of this year’s San Francisco’s People to Watch, is a self-made real estate developer on the rise . . .

  He supposed the self-made part was true. Currently in the middle of flipping three properties in the North Bay area, he’d been putting in so many hours that his core team was starting to lag. They all needed a break, but that wasn’t happening anytime soon.

  Winters specializes in buying up dilapidated projects in prime areas and turning them into heart-stopping, must-have properties. He doesn’t find any use for sentimentality, ruthlessly selling each of them off as he completes them.

  Also true. Financially, it didn’t pay to hold on to the projects. There’d been a time not that long ago when he’d had to sell each off immediately upon completion or end up bankrupt. And yeah, maybe he’d lucked into that first deal, but there’d been no luck involved since. He was a risk taker and he knew how to make it pay off. As a result, he’d gotten good at burying sentimentality, not just with the properties he developed, but in his personal life too.

  And as far as that personal life went, he’d been walking by South Bark after getting his coffee every morning for months and it’d never once occurred to him to check out the shop. He hadn’t had a dog since Blue, who he’d lost the year before he’d left home, and he sure as hell wasn’t in a hurry to feel devastated from loss like that again anytime soon.

  Or ever.

  But then his great-aunt Sally had dropped off Pita and he’d met the sexy owner of South Bark. Keane had no idea why Willa seemed irritated by the mere sight of him, but he felt anything but irritated by the sight of her. He thought maybe it was her eyes, the brightest green eyes he’d ever seen, not to mention her temperament, which appeared to match her strawberry blonde hair—way more strawberry than blonde.

  He walked through the top floor of his favorite of his three current projects, Vallejo Street. The other two—North Beach and Mission Street—were purely strategic business decisions and would go right on the market the minute he finished them.

  Buy low, renovate smart, sell high. That’d been his MO, always.

  But the Vallejo Street house . . . He’d picked up the 1940 Victorian for way too much money five years ago on the one and only whim he could remember ever having. But he’d taken one look at the neglected old house and had seen potential in the three-story, five thousand square feet, regardless of the fact that it’d been practically falling off its axis.

  Since then, he’d had to get into other projects fast and hard to recoup the lost seed money, and had worked on Vallejo Street only as time allowed.

  Which was why it had taken so long to get it finished, or very nearly finished anyway. For the past year, the bottom floor had been serving as his office. He’d been living there as well. All that would have to change when he got it on the market, something he needed to do, as selling it would give him the capital for new projects.

  He walked to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows and looked out. The day’s light was almost gone. The city was coming to life with lights, backdropped by a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay beyond that.

  “Dude.” This from Mason, his right-hand guy, who stood in the doorway. “We need to get the guys in here this week to help work on the loft since you and your little height phobia can’t—Are you listening to me?”

  “Sure,” Keane said to the window. He could see the Pacific Pier Building and pictured Willa in her shop wearing one of her smartass aprons, running her world with matching smartass charm.

  Someone snorted. Sass. His admin had come in too, and no one cut through bullshit faster than Sass.

  “He’s not listening to me,” Mason complained.

  “Not a single word,” Sass agreed.

  Keane’s phone beeped his alarm. “Gotta go,” he said. “I’ve got ten minutes to pick up Pita before South Bark closes.”

  “I could go get her for you,” Sass offered. “What?” she asked when Mason’s mouth fell open. “I offer to do nice stuff all the time.”

  “You offer to do nice stuff never,” Mason said.

  “All the time.”

  “Yeah? Name one,” Mason challenged.

 
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