The trouble with mistlet.., p.32
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.32

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  “Dudette,” he said with a slow head shake. “I’d do anything for you, you know that, but they took my license away twenty years ago now.”

  “They” being the state of California, probably having something to do with the medical marijuana card he had laminated and hanging around his neck.

  “It’s okay.” She slipped him all the cash she had in her pocket—twenty bucks—and a quick hug. “Merry Christmas,” she said before running to the stairs. She dashed into her apartment and grabbed her bag. Then she two-timed it back to the pub and banged on the door.

  Sean answered and she pushed past him, rushing to the stage where her best friends in the world were currently fighting over who’d won a bonus round of karaoke—hip-hop style.

  Archer was adamant that his rendition of “Ice Ice Baby” beat Spence and Finn’s version of “Baby Got Back.” Finn was laughing so hard he was on the floor. Elle was sitting on the bar filing her nails listening to something Pru was telling her and nodding in agreement.

  They stopped and stared at her, making her realize that she was drenched from the rain and a complete and utter mess.

  Inside and out.

  “So it turns out that I really am too stubborn and obstinate to see reason. And also, I screwed everything up,” she added breathlessly. “I need a ride.”

  They all kept staring at her.

  “Now,” she said. And then she whirled to the door, knowing she didn’t have to wait. They had her back too. Just like she should’ve known that Keane would have her back. Pushing open the pub door she got to the street and then turned around to see who’d come to drive her so she would know which car or truck to go for.

  They were all right there, every last one of them, pulling on jackets as they rushed out the door after her and her heart just about burst out of her chest. “Thanks,” she whispered.

  Spence pulled her in for a hard hug. “Anything for you,” he said against her temple. “You know that.”

  “Even if I’ve been really stupid?”

  “Especially if,” Archer said and tugged on a wet strand of her hair. “Let’s go.”

  “All of us?” For the first time she hesitated. “I’m not sure I need an audience for this.”

  “Tough,” Elle said. “You’re family. And family sticks together on Christmas.”

  Willa’s eyes filled. “It’s not Christmas yet,” she managed.

  Spence looked at his phone for the time. “Eleven thirty,” he said. “Close enough.”

  They all piled into Archer’s truck because he was the only actual sober one. “Where to?” he asked her.

  “Keane’s.”

  He smiled. “No shit. I meant I need an address.”

  Right. She started to rattle it off and then sat straight up. “We have to go to a tree lot first! He doesn’t have a tree, I want to bring him a tree!”

  Spence groaned, but Archer didn’t blink an eye. And ten minutes later they were all standing in a tree lot, staring at the two trees that were left.

  “That one,” Pru said, pointing to a very short tree with three branches.

  “No, this one,” Elle said about a taller but equally sparse tree.

  Archer looked at Willa. Then he turned to the guy running the lot. “You got anything else?”

  The guy shrugged. “There’s one in my trailer. It’s slightly used, but it’s the best tree on this lot.”

  “You don’t want it?” Willa asked him.

  The guy flashed a smile. “Got a hot date with the missus tonight. I’d rather have the fifty bucks.”

  “Forty,” Archer said and paid the guy.

  The tree went into the back of his truck and in ten more minutes they were at Keane’s house.

  Willa still had no idea exactly what she was going to say, only knowing that she had to say something, anything, to fix this.

  Because she was done running.

  When Archer pulled over in front of the house, they all looked at her.

  She stared at the house, garnering courage. Thankfully her friends gave her the silence she so desperately needed. When she finally thought maybe she could get out of the truck and not have her legs collapse in anxiety, she opened the door. Turning back, she found the people she loved more than anything all squished in tight together, practically on top of each other, watching her with varying degrees of concern and worry. “I’m okay,” she told them, struck anew by how lucky she was to have them in her life. To know she was loved. To believe in herself because they believed in her.

  Keane hadn’t had any of that and yet he was still one of the most incredible men she’d ever met. He’d never learned to love and yet he was able to feel it enough to tell her.

  And she hadn’t said anything back. In fact, she’d let him believe he didn’t deserve a second chance, when everyone deserved a second chance. And God, even though she didn’t deserve it, she really, really hoped a second chance applied to her too. “Thanks for the ride. I’ll talk to you guys tomorrow.”

  “Oh, we’re not going anywhere,” Elle said. “We’re going to sit here quietly and well behaved—” She broke off to give the guys a long look. “And there will be no fart wars while we wait or someone will die.”

  “Hey, that wasn’t my bad last time,” Spence said. “I’m not the one who’s dairy intolerant.”

  “Well excuse me,” Finn grumbled. “How was I supposed to know the smoothie Pru bought me that night was milk based?”

  “He hasn’t had any dairy today,” Pru told Elle. “He’s dairy free.”

  “You don’t have to stay,” Willa repeated.

  Archer shook his head. They were staying. “Until you tell us you’re good,” he said, and just like that it became law. “Wave when you’re ready for the tree and we’ll bring it up.”

  Okay, then. Willa ran up the steps and knocked. She wasn’t sure what she expected but when Keane opened the door, she lost her tongue.

  She could tell he was surprised too. His gaze tracked past her to the truck at the curb—and the five faces there, pressed up against a fogged-up window, watching.

  “Don’t mind them,” she said. “There was nothing good on TV tonight.”

  He almost smiled at that, she could tell. Tucked under one arm like a football was Petunia, lounging against his strong forearm like she’d been born to do so.

  Keane wore only a T-shirt and sweat pants. No shoes. Hair looking like maybe he’d shoved his fingers through it. He seemed tired, wary, and distinctly not happy.

  Her fault.

  “How long are they going to stay out there?” he asked.

  “Until I get my life together.” She pulled the door from his grasp and shut it on her friends’ collective faces.

  “Do they know that might take a while?” Keane asked wryly.

  She let out a low laugh and turned to face him, eyes on his face. “You love me?” she asked softly.

  “So you did hear me.” He took her hand with his free one and led her to the kitchen. He set the cat down on the floor near her bowl, and true to form, she waddled over to it and stuck her head into the thing like she’d been starved for the past five weeks.

  Keane rolled his eyes, grabbed a clean dish towel, and turned back to Willa, running it over her dripping hair. “You’re frozen through,” he said, standing close, very close, affecting her breathing. He met her gaze and held it as he dried her off. “You need a hot shower and—”

  She wrapped her fingers around his wrists and stilled his movements. “You love me.”

  He tossed the towel aside and cupped her face. “From the moment you let me into South Bark that first morning and gave me ’tude.” He gave a little smile. “And then changed my life with your easy affection, huge heart, and the world’s best smile.”

  “Oh,” she breathed, completely undone. Her eyes filled and she snapped her mouth shut for a minute, swallowing hard. “I love you too, Keane.” Oh God. She’d never said those words out loud before. She had to bend over for a second, hands on
her knees, fighting the sudden dizziness.

  Two strong hands lifted her. When she met his gaze, he was smiling a little. “How much did that hurt?” he asked.

  She let out a breath. “Not nearly as much as this—I’m sorry I ran off like that. It was just like when you tried to give me your key, I . . . panicked.”

  “And?”

  “And then I blamed you for holding back, but it was all me. I let you in and I fell hard. And then suddenly it was like that bad nightmare of going to school naked. I got scared.”

  “I know. Come here, Willa.” And then instead of waiting for her to do so, he pulled her into his arms. “Are you scared now?”

  “No,” she said, holding on tight.

  “Then have some faith in me to not hurt you.”

  “I’ve always have faith in you,” she said. “It was the faith in me that took a while.”

  “This isn’t all on you, Willa,” he said. “It’s on me too. I should’ve told you about putting the house up for sale. I should’ve told you about the offers that poured in. But the truth is that you were right all along. I didn’t really want to sell.”

  She stilled and lifted her head to see his face. “So why are you?”

  “I’m not.” He shook his head. “I rescinded my acceptance of the offer.”

  She just stared up at him. “Because . . . ?”

  “Because this house is no longer just a house to me,” he said. “It’s my home. And I want it to be yours too.” He cupped her face and pressed his forehead to hers. “I’m hoping you want that too. Think you can handle it?”

  She slipped her arms around his waist. “There’s this incredible man I know. He let me watch him learn that being emotionally closed off didn’t work, that it’s worth the risk to let someone in.”

  He smiled. “He sounds smart as hell. Probably he’s sexy as hell too, right?”

  She laughed and pressed even closer, unable to believe this was really happening. “So damn sexy.”

  He looked deep into her eyes and let his smile fade. “I love you, Willa. I’ve spent years risking everything for my business, over and over. It’s past time to risk my heart for you.”

  “Does risking that heart include letting me put up a tree?”

  “It’s a little late for that, I think.”

  “Actually, it’s not.” She ran to the front door. Yep, everyone was still curbside in Archer’s truck. She waved.

  Archer and Spence got out of the car, untied the tree from the truck bed and carried it up the front steps.

  Keane blinked.

  “Tree delivery service,” Spence quipped. “Where do you want it?”

  Keane looked at Willa. “Wherever she wants.”

  “Good answer,” Archer murmured as they carted the tree in.

  They deposited it in the large front living room. Spence walked out the front door first, Archer behind him. He turned and looked at Willa. “You good?”

  She beamed at him.

  “Yeah,” he said with a barely there smile. “You’re good.”

  And then they were gone.

  Keane rubbed a hand over his jaw, staring at the tree, which was only slightly crooked. The topper was Archer’s Santa hat.

  “The holidays are going to be insane, aren’t they?” he asked.

  She smiled from the bottom of her heart and took his hand. “Yeah. Scared?”

  “Bring it.”

  With a musical laugh, she leapt into his arms, wrapping herself around him. Then she snuggled in and smiled against his lips. “Mmm. You missed me.” She wriggled against him. “Or at least a part of you did.”

  He entwined his fingers into her hair and kissed her, deep and serious. “All of me,” he said. “All of me missed you. All of me needs you in my life. You are my life. We’re doing this, Willa. And it’s going to be good.”

  She got anticipatory chills. “Yes, please. We’ve done it in my kitchen, but not yours . . .”

  With a rough laugh, he kissed her again. “You know damn well what I meant. But your idea works too. And after the kitchen, it’s the upstairs bathroom. There’s a handheld showerhead there that you’re going to like.” He flashed his wicked grin. “A lot.”

  She slid her hands to his jaw. “Are you sure?”

  “Hell yeah. That showerhead’s going to rock your world—”

  Laughing, she went to kiss him but he stopped her. “I want you to be okay with all of this,” he said. “With me.”

  “I know. And I am. So much. I’m completely yours, Keane.”

  Her words seemed to light him up from within. “And you’ll tell me if it gets to be too much. I don’t want you to run—”

  She gently covered his mouth with her fingers. “I learned tonight when I thought I’d blown it with you that nothing is ever going to be too much. Now you. You’ll let me know if I drive you crazy?”

  He laughed. “I love your crazy. I love you, Willa. With everything that I am, I love you.”

  “Oh,” she breathed softly. “You’re good.”

  “Give me five minutes in that shower and you’ll see how much better than good I really am.”

  She smiled against his lips. “I haven’t given you your Christmas present yet.”

  “What is it?” he asked.

  “Me.”

  The full-blown smile across his face was brighter than all the lights in the city. “Best present ever,” he said and Willa knew that Christmas, not to mention the rest of her life, was never going to be the same again. It was in fact going to be better than her wildest dreams.

  Epilogue

  #GoodMorningSunshine

  On Christmas morning, Keane woke up like he always did, slowly. He took a deep breath and smiled as the scent of Willa’s shampoo filled his nostrils. This was because her hair was in his face. In fact, she had shifted in her sleep and was lying half on top of him, using him as her personal body pillow.

  The day hadn’t even started and already it was his favorite Christmas of all time. It’d only taken four little words—I love you, Keane—to make his world complete. But it was so much more than that. It was him realizing that the woman he loved more than anything loved him back every bit as much. It was her being okay with losing herself in him because she knew that she’d always find herself there too. It was her trusting him, believing in him, in them.

  She was wearing his favorite pj’s—absolutely nothing but her birthday suit—and he slowly ran his hands over all that creamy warm skin he loved so much.

  “Hmph,” she murmured, not moving an inch.

  He stilled, not wanting to wake her all the way, knowing she needed sleep since he’d kept her up most of the night checking off items on their “list.”

  He’d drawn the Bad Elf fantasy, and in a twist he’d made her the bad elf. The vision of her in nothing but an elf hat and tied to his headboard was going down in history as his all-time favorite, but he was open to topping it.

  Still draped over him, Willa wriggled. “Why did you stop?” she asked, eyes still closed, voice groggy.

  He went back to stroking her. Every time he stopped, she wriggled and made a noise of discontentment, making him laugh. “Merry Christmas,” he murmured in her ear and took her lobe between his teeth.

  She sat straight up. “It’s Christmas!” she exclaimed as if she’d actually forgotten.

 
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