The trouble with mistlet.., p.31
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.31

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  “Both,” she said.

  The rest of the knots fell away as he pulled up in front of his house. Rain pelted the truck as he turned to her, one hand on the steering wheel, the other going to the nape of her neck.

  She leaned across the console and kissed him, short but not sweet. “Petunia first,” she said quietly. “The rest later. We have time.”

  He cupped her jaw, his thumb stroking her soft skin. “I like the sound of that,” he said. “I’ll go check with the neighbors. See if anyone saw her.”

  “Can I use your office to make some posters?” she asked and, if he wasn’t mistaken, shivered while she was at it.

  “Posters?” he repeated in question, peeling out of his sweatshirt and pulling it over her head.

  “Missing Cat posters.” She hugged his sweatshirt to herself, inhaling deeply as if she liked his scent.

  He reached into his pocket and held out the key he’d tried to give her the other day. He smiled. “You’re going to need this to get inside.”

  Her fingers closed over his and their gazes met and held. “Thanks,” she said. “For the key and the patience.” Then she was gone, running up the steps, letting herself inside the house.

  He watched her go and then grabbed his spare jacket from the backseat. A minute later he was going up and down the street asking about Pita while the woman he was pretty sure had just agreed to be his gave up her Christmas Eve helping him, simply because he’d asked.

  Half an hour later, he had to admit defeat. No one had seen or heard the cat.

  The streets were quiet, traffic was low to nonexistent, but that was because of the storm. Earlier, during rush hour, there’d been heavy traffic. For all he knew, Pita had gotten scared and run off, and then ended up lost. Or she’d been taken by someone.

  Or worse, hit by a car.

  He stood under a tree whose roots had cracked the sidewalk, only half protected from the rain, wet as hell, trying to figure out how he was going to ever face his aunt again when his phone vibrated.

  “Well, finally,” Sharon, his real estate agent said. “I called your office line first and your new girl answered.”

  “I don’t have a new girl.”

  “Then your new girlfriend. She offered to take a message for me but after I told her the fabulous news—”

  “What news?”

  “Well now see, that’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Sharon said. “After I gave her the message, I realized I wanted to tell you myself so I tried your cell and hit pay dirt. You ready?”

  “Just spit it out already.”

  “Okay, Mr. Grinch, you’re not in a partying mood, I get it. But that’s going to change because . . .”

  “Sharon, I swear to God—”

  “We not only have an offer, it’s The Offer. Fifteen percent over our asking price! Merry fucking Christmas, Keane!”

  He went shock still as conflicting emotions hit in a tidal wave. No, more like a tsunami. Over the past two days plenty of offers had come in, but nothing to write home about. He’d told himself the relief he’d felt was simple exhaustion.

  But now that relief turned over in his gut because an offer for fifteen percent over his already inflated asking price was insane and more than he’d hoped for, way more. There was no reason not to jump on this offer, none. He’d told himself he wanted out, had wanted that badly enough to make it happen, and now here he was.

  Wishes of his own making.

  “Keane?”

  “Yeah.” Where was the elation? Or the sense that this was the right thing? “I’m here,” he said, squinting as the wind kicked up, rain slapping him in the face.

  “Tell me I’m accepting this offer,” Sharon said.

  If this was my home, I’d never leave it . . . Willa’s words floated in his brain.

  “Keane,” Sharon said, suddenly serious. “I’m not going to lie, you’re scaring me more than a little bit with the whole silent act here. Tell me we’re selling. Say it out loud before I have the rest of this stroke you’re giving me. I mean it, Keane. If I die from this, and it feels like I might, I want you to know I’m leaving my five cats to you. Five.”

  “Yeah,” he said. “I hear you.”

  “So can I accept this offer?”

  He tipped his head up, looking through the branches of the tree at the wild, stormy sky. When he’d put the house on the market, he’d done so because he knew he wasn’t cut out for the stability this house would provide. He couldn’t even keep a damn cat. And yeah, things were looking good with Willa but there were no guarantees. There were never any guarantees. “Accept the offer,” he said.

  Sharon wooted and whooped it up in his ear and then disconnected, leaving him standing there in the storm, the icy rain slapping him in the face.

  He should feel good. Instead, a pit in his stomach warned him that maybe he wasn’t thinking this all the way through, that maybe he was letting his lifelong, string-free existence rear its head and take over, ignoring how things had started to change deep within him.

  Taking a deep breath, he turned back to the house, stopping in surprise when he found Willa on his porch. “Hey,” he said. “Why are you out here in the rain?”

  “I tried calling you,” she said. She was hugging herself. And no longer wearing his sweatshirt. He started to take his jacket off to give it to her, but she held up her hand.

  “I found Pita,” she said.

  “Seriously? Where?”

  “You put a grate over the vent she went down last time, and then a chair over that, probably to dissuade her from another adventure.” She held his gaze. “Or maybe it was for aesthetic value so that the room looked good when real estate agents paraded their clients through here.”

  Oh shit. He hadn’t told her. Why hadn’t he told her? Because you hadn’t really believed she could ever be yours . . . He opened his mouth but she spoke quickly. “Petunia somehow squeezed herself under the chair, snagged the grate up with a claw, and down she went.” She lifted a shoulder. “She was filthy so I cleaned her up in the bathroom sink. No worries, I cleaned up after, good as new for your new buyer.” Her eyes were fathomless. Unreadable. “Congratulations, by the way.”

  “I was going to tell you about the offer,” he said quietly.

  She nodded, which was kind of her since they both knew he hadn’t even told her when he’d put the place up on the market. “Willa, I—”

  “No,” she said. “You don’t owe me an explanation. Not for that, and not for the fact that you’re giving Petunia away.” Her mouth was grim. “I’m sorry, your phone was ringing off the hook, I thought maybe it was an emergency so I answered. Sally’s friend’s coming tomorrow morning to pick up Petunia.”

  Actually, Keane did owe her an explanation because it wasn’t what she thought. It wasn’t him trying to keep from getting attached, to the house or Pita. Or her. Because that ship had sailed. He was attached. He couldn’t get more attached.

  He hadn’t told her about putting the house on the market because he’d been postponing doing that for so long he’d just assumed he could keep on postponing, never having to make the conscious decision to keep it.

  As for Pita, he’d regretted that decision from the moment he’d so readily agreed. He’d thought being free of the cat and the house would simplify his life.

  Turned out he didn’t want simple. “Sally’s friend wants to adopt Pita for her grandkids.”

  “So you’re really giving her up?”

  “Not me,” he said. “Sally’s friend wants her long-term.”

  “And you don’t.”

  Recrimination and disappointment were all over her face.

  “It wasn’t my idea, Willa.”

  She stared at him for a long beat. “Well then,” she finally said. “I’m glad for the chance to say goodbye.”

  He shifted in closer, reaching for her but she took a step back.

  “Willa,” he said quietly. “We all knew it was hopefully a temporary situation. There’s no cho
ice here.”

  She met his gaze. “There’s always another choice.”

  Keane had thought admitting that he wanted her in his life was difficult but the joke was on him. The hardest part was still in front of him. How was he going to maintain a relationship when he had no idea how to even start? He’d never been successful at true intimacy.

  But to be with Willa, he was most definitely up for the challenge. He started to tell her just that but a car came toward them, the lights shining through the downpour as it slowed and then stopped in front of the house.

  Willa started down the steps but Keane caught her. “Willa—”

  “I’m leaving, Keane. I called an Uber.”

  His other hand came up, holding her still as he stared down at her, his heart pounding uncomfortably. “Why?”

  “You know why,” she whispered. “This isn’t going to work.”

  The Uber driver honked and Willa started to move but Keane held on to her, lifting a finger to the driver to signal they needed a minute. “Okay,” he said, attempting to find his equilibrium here, not able to will his hands to let loose of her. “I fucked up but—”

  “No, that’s the thing,” she said. “This isn’t on you. It’s all on me for thinking we could do this. The guy who doesn’t need anyone or anything, and the girl who secretly dreams about love but doesn’t know how to hold on to it.” She put a hand to her chest like it hurt. “The mistake’s mine, Keane. I let myself fall for the fantasy. Hell,” she said on a short laugh. “I let myself fall period, even when I knew better.”

  The driver honked again and she turned that way but Keane blocked her. “I never meant to hurt you,” he said, swiping a lone tear from her cheek with his thumb. “You believe in second chances, remember? Well give me one.”

  “It’s not about second chances, Keane. It’s that, as it turns out, we’re both pretty damn good at being temporary specialists and leaving ourselves an escape clause.”

  Her shimmery smile broke his heart and he laughed mirthlessly. “I certainly didn’t plan for an escape clause when I fell in love with you.”

  She stilled and stared up at him. “Wait—what?”

  Jesus, had he really just said that, just opened a vein here when she had one foot out the door?

  “Keane?”

  Yep, he’d said it. Later he’d think it was like getting a brain freeze after gulping down a Slurpee too fast. There was nothing but the burn for a long beat as his mind went into a free fall. He loved her. Holy shit, he loved her.

  But by the time he managed to gulp some air into his deprived lungs and kick-start himself again, Willa had given up on him and climbed into the Uber, leaving him alone in the cold, dark night.

  Chapter 30

  #TakesALickingAndKeepsOnTicking

  Willa walked through the courtyard, soggy footsteps muted as she crossed to the fountain. It was as empty as her heart.

  The water hitting the copper base was a familiar soothing sound and she stopped, hugging herself. She wished she’d kept Keane’s sweatshirt, but his body heat had lingered in it along with his scent, and she was a junkie.

  Time to go cold turkey.

  “Hey,” Rory said, coming around the fountain toward her.

  “Hey. What are you doing out here this late, it’s freezing.”

  “I’m fine,” Rory said. “Just making a wish. World peace and all that.”

  Willa smiled. “When did you become the grown-up in our little twosome?”

  “Since you dragged me into adulthood kicking and screaming.” With a small smile, Rory pulled a little wrapped box from her pocket and held it out to Willa. “Merry Christmas.”

  Willa shook her head. “Oh, honey, you didn’t have to—”

  “You took me in off the streets. You gave me a job and force-fed me morals and honesty and trust.” Rory’s eyes went misty. “So yes, I’m giving you a present, small as it is.”

  Willa pulled her in for a hard hug. “I love you, you know.”

  Rory gave a small, embarrassed laugh. “Well, jeez, you haven’t even opened it yet. Maybe you’ll hate it.”

  Willa pulled off the paper and then let out a half laugh, half sob at the sight of the cute little key chain with a bunch of charms, each with a pic of some of her favorite customers’ pets. “I love it.”

  “I’m going home,” Rory said softly. “I’m nervous as hell and I might throw up if I think about it too long, but thanks for getting me the ride. Archer called me and said I’m leaving in half an hour. Should be in Tahoe by dawn.”

  “You’ll call me, tell me how it goes?”

  “Yes.”

  Willa gave her a long look.

  “Okay, no, I won’t call,” Rory said. “I hate talking on the phone. But I’ll text.”

  Good enough. Willa hugged her tight. “Still love you.”

  “Well, if you’re going to get mushy . . .” Rory squeezed her back, clinging for a moment. “Then I suppose I love you too.” She pulled back and swiped her nose. “Thought you’d be with Keane tonight.”

  “Why?”

  “Right. Because you’re not a thing.”

  “Okay, fine, I might have been wrong about that before but we’re back to not being a thing now. For good.”

  Rory rolled her eyes so hard that Willa was surprised they didn’t fall out of her head. “Because while you love me, you looo-oooo-ooove him.”

  Willa didn’t have the heart to tell her that sometimes love wasn’t enough. “I’m not sure it’s going to work out.”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s . . . complicated,” Willa said.

  “Complicated as in you got scared that he’s not a dog or a cat or a wayward teen that needs taking care until it finds its final home?”

  Willa blew out a breath. “Well why don’t you tell me what you really think?”

  “Sorry.” Rory smiled gently. “But he’s a good guy, Willa, we all think so. If you can’t trust yourself, then maybe you can trust the collective certainty of the people who love and care about you. Don’t find him a different permanent home than with you, Willa.”

  She choked out a laugh. “He’s not a dog!”

  “Exactly.” And with that, Rory kissed her on the cheek and walked away.

  Willa turned to the fountain. For months now she’d recklessly tossed coins into this very water, wishing for love. And then, apparently, she’d proceeded to panic when she’d actually gotten what she’d wished for.

  “Dammit,” she whispered. “Everyone’s right.”

  “Well, of course we are, darlin’.”

  She nearly jumped out of her skin as she turned and faced Eddie, wearing board shorts and a really ugly Christmas sweater.

  He smiled. “So what are we right about?”

  “Sometimes I’m too stubborn and obstinate to see reason.”

  “Sometimes?”

  She huffed out a sigh.

  He grimaced at the look on her face. “Okay, now see, this is why I never managed to stay married. There’s all these landmine discussions and I kept stepping on them and blowing myself up.”

  “It’s not your fault. It’s mine.” Because of it, she’d walked away from Keane—not because he’d not told her about his house or Petunia, but because she was scared of everything she thought she wanted. Everything that had for once truly been within her grasp and standing right in front of her. “Oh my God.” She looked at Eddie. “I’ve made a terrible mistake. I need a ride.”

 
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