The trouble with mistlet.., p.4
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.4

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  “Well, I wanted to smack you upside the back of your head all day,” she said. “And I resisted. See? I think that was exceptionally nice.”

  Keane left while they were still arguing. It would take him less than five minutes to walk to South Bark but Pita wouldn’t appreciate the chilly walk back, so he drove. Parking was the usual joke, so that by the time he got a spot twenty minutes had gone by.

  He walked through the courtyard, taking a moment to admire the gorgeous architecture of the old place, the corbeled brick and exposed iron trusses, the large picture windows, the cobblestone beneath his feet, and the huge fountain centerpiece where idiots the city over came to toss a coin and wish for love.

  All of it had been decorated for the holidays with garlands of evergreen entwined with twinkling white lights in every doorway and window frame, not to mention a huge-ass Christmas tree near the street entrance.

  But that wasn’t what stopped him. No, that honor went to the wedding prep going on. Or at least he assumed it was a wedding by the sheer volume of white flowers and lights, the ivory pillar candles set up in clusters paired with clove-dotted oranges and sprigs of holly running along the edge of half of a very crooked archway—

  He stopped short as it fell over.

  “Crap!”

  The woman who yelled this had strawberry blonde hair, emphasis on strawberry.

  Willa squatted low over the fallen pieces of the archway trying to . . . God knew what.

  “Shit. Shit, shit, shit,” she was muttering while shaking the hell out of the screw gun in her hand. “Why are you doing this to me?”

  “It’s not the screw gun,” he said, coming up behind her. “It’s operator error.”

  She jerked in response and, still squatting, lost her balance and fell to her butt. Craning her neck, she glared up at him. “What are you doing creeping up on me like that?”

  He reached a hand down to her and pulled her to her feet. And then grinned because she was wearing another smartass apron that read OCD . . . Obsessive Christmas Disorder.

  With a low laugh for the utter truth of that statement, he took the screw gun from her.

  “It’s broken,” she said.

  He inspected it and shook his head. “No, you’re just out of nails.” He crouched, reaching for more from the box near her feet to reload the screw gun.

  Since she was still just staring at him, he turned his attention to what she’d been doing. “You realize that this archway is only going to be three feet high, right?”

  “That’s perfect.”

  “In what universe is that perfect?” he asked.

  “In the dog universe. It’s a dog wedding.”

  That had him freezing for a beat before he felt a smile split his face.

  She blinked. “Huh.”

  “What?” Did he have chocolate on his teeth from the candy bar he’d inhaled on the way over here, the only food he’d managed in the past four hours?

  “You smiled,” she said, almost an accusation.

  “You’ve seen me smile.”

  “Not really, not since—” She cut herself off and took the gun from him. “Never mind. And thanks.”

  “There’s really going to be a dog wedding? Here, in the courtyard?” he asked.

  “In less than an hour unless I screw it all up. I’m the wedding planner.” She paused as if waiting for something, some reaction from him, but he managed to keep his expression even.

  “You’re not going to laugh?” she asked. “Because you look like the kind of guy who would laugh at the idea of two dogs getting married.”

  “Listen,” he said completely honestly. “I’m the guy who needed a fur-sitter because he was terrorized by a ten-pound cat, so I’m not throwing stones here. Speaking of which, where is the little holy terror?”

  “She’s in my shop safe and sound with plenty of food and water, napping in the warmest spot in the place—between Macaroni and Luna.”

  He must have looked blank because she said, “The two other pets I’m babysitting today. Well technically Cara, one of my employees, is doing the babysitting at the moment.”

  “I hope you aren’t attached to those other pets,” he said. “Because Pita will tear them up one side and down the other.”

  Willa merely laughed and pulled her phone from one of her apron pockets, a few dog treats cascading out as well, hitting the cobblestone beneath their feet.

  With an exclamation, she squatted down to scoop them up at the same time that Keane did, cracking the bottom of his chin on top of her head.

  This time they both fell to their butts.

  “Ow!” she said, holding her head. “And I’m so sorry, are you okay?”

  He blinked past the stars in his vision. “Lived through worse,” he assured her, and reached out to gently rub the top of her head. Her hair was soft and silky and smelled amazing. “You?”

  “Oh, my noggin’s hard as stone, just ask anyone who knows me,” she quipped.

  Their gazes met and held and he realized that their legs were entangled and was struck by the close proximity and the unbidden and primal urge he had to pull her into his lap.

  Clearly not on the same page, she picked up her phone and went back to thumbing through her pics. “Ha,” she exclaimed triumphantly. “Here.” She leaned in to show him her phone’s screen, her arm bumping into his. When he bent closer, her hair brushed against his jaw, a strand of it sticking stubbornly to his stubble.

  “See?” she asked.

  He blinked away the daze she’d put him in and realized she was showing him a pic of the front room in her store. And just as she’d said, there in front of a holly-strewn fake mantel lay a huge pit bull and a teeny-tiny teacup . . . piglet. Entwined.

  Between them was a familiar-looking white ball of fluff with the black face of his nightmares. And that nightmare’s face was pressed trustingly to the pit bull’s. For a long beat Keane just stared at it. “Photoshop, right?” he finally asked. “Just to fuck with me?”

  She laughed, and he found himself smiling at just the sound. But soon as he did, her amusement faded, almost as if she’d just reminded herself that she didn’t like him. Standing, she turned away. “Well, finally.”

  “What?”

  “Archer and Spence are here.”

  “The dogs?”

  “No, two of my best friends.”

  “I met your best friends,” he said. “They were the ones who watched our conversation this morning like we were a Netflix marathon, right?”

  “I have a whole gang of BFFs,” she said. “Archer and Spence are on wedding security detail tonight.” The cell phone on her hip rang. She looked at the screen and swore.

  “The antichrist committed murder, didn’t she,” he guessed.

  “No, of course not! I’ve got a cake emergency.”

  “Well I can’t compete with that. Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll build the dog archway.”

  She hesitated. “It has to be perfect.”

  Keane had built houses from the ground up and she was questioning his ability to put together an archway. For dogs. “Cake emergency,” he reminded her.

  “Shit. Okay . . .” She looked at him very seriously. “Do you need any help?”

  He stuck his tongue in his cheek. “I’m pretty sure I can handle it.”

  Looking torn, she blew out a sigh. “Okay, if you’re sure. And . . . thanks.”

  He merely waved Ms. Doubtful One off, though he wasn’t above watching her rush away. Yeah, his gaze locked on her sweet ass in those snug skinny jeans tucked into some seriously kickass boots. He was still watching, neck craned to catch the last of her as he turned back to his work and . . . nearly plowed into two guys standing there shoulder to shoulder staring at him. The two who Willa had pointed out as Archer and Spence.

  Neither spoke.

  “So . . . you guys here for the bride or the groom?” Keane asked.

  No one blinked.

  “It’s a joke,” Keane said. “Because the
groom and the bride are dogs. See, it’s funny.”

  Neither smiled.

  “Tough crowd,” he muttered.

  “We’re here for Willa,” one of them said. The bigger, more ’tude-ridden one, who looked like he’d seen the darker side of the world and maybe still lived there. The other guy was leaner but just as fit, his eyes assessing Keane with careful interest.

  “Hey.” This was Willa herself, yelling from the other side of the courtyard’s fountain. “Play nice!” She pointed at her two friends. “Especially you two.”

  Spence and Archer busted out sweet-looking smiles for her and added cheerful waves. Then the minute she turned away, they went back to deadpan staring at Keane.

  “Okay, great talk,” he said. “I’m going to build this dog gazebo now. You can either stand there or give me a hand.”

  The bigger guy spoke. “The last guy she went out with played games with her head.” His tone was quiet, his gaze direct and steady.

  The other guy, clearly the more easygoing of the two, nodded. “They never did find the body, did they?”

  The other guy slowly shook his head.

  Okay then. “Good to know,” Keane said lightly but suddenly he was feeling anything but light. He didn’t like the thought of anyone screwing with Willa. Still fixated on that, he turned his back on her bodyguards and got to work. When he straightened to hoist the arch, suddenly there were four extra hands—both guys lending their strength to the cause.

  Still not talking.

  After that they were apparently a threesome and recruited as such to be the official setting-up-chairs committee. One hundred and fifty chairs to be exact.

  For a dog wedding.

  The three of them were hot and sweaty in no time even with the cold December air brushing over them.

  “At least it’s easier than that time she made us help her do that South Beach wedding, remember, Arch?” the leaner guy asked, giving Keane his first clue on which was Archer and which was Spence.

  Archer just grunted as he lined up the last row, his gaze drifting to the edge of the courtyard where Elle stood in a siren red dress working both a cell phone and an iPad.

  Spence followed his friend’s gaze. “How is it she never gets dirty or sweaty?”

  Archer shook his head. “Dirt and sweat don’t stick to Elle; she isn’t human.”

  Spence laughed. “So she’s still mad at you then.”

  “She’s always mad at me.”

  “You ever figure out why?”

  Archer didn’t answer.

  Willa came up with three bottles of water. “Chilly night,” she said.

  Keane, who’d been still getting the occasional frosty looks from Spence and Archer, snorted.

  Willa took this in and then looked at them each in turn. “What’s going on?”

  No one said a word.

  She reached up and grabbed Spence by the ear. He manfully winced instead of yelped. “What the hell, Wills.”

  “What’s the weird vibe? What’s going on?”

  Spence carefully pried her fingers from his ear. “Why didn’t you twist off Archer’s ear?”

  “Because Archer’s probably wearing two guns and a knife,” she said.

  Keane glanced over at the guy. Archer’s body language hadn’t changed. He was deceptively casual, his gaze hard and alert. Military or law enforcement, he figured.

  Willa went hands on hips.

  Archer didn’t cave, but Spence did. “We were just making sure this one passed muster after Ethan—” He broke off at the look on Willa’s face.

  Keane had two older sisters. They’d mostly ignored him unless he’d put himself in the line of fire. During those times, their gazes had shot out promised retribution that might or might not include maiming and torturing. Death was a given.

  Willa had the look down.

  “This one?” Willa repeated. “Oh my God.”

  Spence opened his mouth but Willa shook her head and pointed at him.

  “No,” she said. “You know what? This is really all my own fault.”

  “No, it’s not,” Archer said firmly. “Ethan was an asshole serial creeper—”

  “I meant it’s my fault that I’m friends with you two!” And then without so much as glancing over, she jabbed a finger in Keane’s face, nearly taking out an eye. “He isn’t a date,” she said. “He isn’t a future date. And he sure as hell isn’t a past one.”

  Keane opened his mouth but then shut it again. This was the second time now she’d referred to a past between them. He was so busy mentally rewinding the conversation that he nearly missed Spence and Archer taking off. He didn’t, however, miss Spence’s sympathetic glance as he left.

  “Listen,” Willa said when it was just the two of them. “I’m grateful for your help, very grateful actually, but—”

  “How do you know I’m not a future date?” Well, hell, he hadn’t realized that had bugged him so much.

  Willa looked just as flabbergasted. “I just know,” she finally said. “I—” She broke off when a little boy not more than four years old tugged on her apron. She immediately smiled, a warm, sweet smile that dazzled Keane more than it should as she hunkered low to be eye-to-eye with the kid.

  “Hey, Keller.” She straightened his mini tux jacket. “You look handsome tonight.”

  “My daddies say they’re ready.”

  “Perfect, because so are we.”

  Keller tipped his head way back to look up at Keane. “You’re wearing funny shoes for a wedding.”

  “They’re work boots,” Keane told him. “And speaking of footwear, yours are on the wrong feet.”

  Keller looked down at his shoes and scratched his head before tipping his head up again. “But I don’t have any other feet,” he finally said.

  Fair enough, Keane thought but Willa helped the kid sit down and fix his shoes. Then she went back to being an adorable but utter tyrant, bossing everyone into doing her bidding. No one complained. In fact, everyone seemed happy to jump to her every command.

  He could use her on his jobsites.

  Ten minutes later the wedding was taking place, complete with marriage certificates that each dog put a paw print on, and a video recording by Rory. There’d apparently been a registry as well because a stack of wrapped gifts from South Bark sat on a table.

  “I’ve just run out of those bedazzled leashes,” Willa was saying to someone, consulting an iPad after the ceremony. “But I’ll be happy to take an order.”

  Yeah, Keane was starting to see a whole other side to Willa and her entrepreneurial skills. And he had to admit, he liked this side of her. She was smart as hell, but surrounded by all the fluff as she was, she’d nearly fooled him.

  After, when the crowd thinned and then dissipated altogether, he stuck around and helped her with the takedown.

  “This isn’t necessary,” she said.

  “Because I’m not a present or future?”

  She gave him a long look and then turned to struggle with the archway.

  Moving in close to help, he reached around her to add his strength to separate the two pieces of the arch. Her back to his
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