The trouble with mistlet.., p.6
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.6

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  Listen,” she went on in a rush, her hand cupping the puppy’s head protectively. “I’m watching this little guy for a friend.”

  “Adorable,” Willa said, moving closer to touch. “Breed?”

  “Hard to say, he’s only three weeks old. He’s still bottle-fed too, but I’m thinking Chihuahua.”

  Not what Keane was thinking, not with those paws that were nearly bigger than his ears.

  “It’s too cold for him, I think,” Kylie said. “He shakes all the time. I’m worried he’s going to rattle the teeth right out of his head. All two of them.”

  “I’ve got just the thing.” Willa pulled what looked like a stack of tiny doll sweaters from a bin by her desk.

  “You’re a lifesaver,” Kylie said, taking four, one of which was a Santa costume. “Bill me.” She turned to Keane. “When you get a chance, stop in. I just finished that reclaimed wood furniture set you saw me working on, what, six months ago now?”

  “I will.”

  She flashed a smile, blew a kiss to Willa for the sweaters, and then was gone.

  Willa slid him a look as she opened her laptop and hit some keys. “I saw the look on your face when you saw the dog sweaters. I make more money on dog sweaters, bedazzled collars, tiaras, and dog weddings than I do from anything else.”

  “You make money however you make money, Willa. It’s a good thing.”

  She paused and looked at him for a long beat, like she was testing his genuineness.

  “When I saw you in action at that wedding,” he said, “I was impressed. People and animals are important to you and you run a really smart business from that.”

  “Animals ground me,” Willa said quietly. “But yeah, I did my homework before I opened this place to make sure I could make a living at it. It’s turned out better than my wildest dreams.”

  “You should be proud of yourself and what you’ve built here.”

  She paused, looking a little startled, like maybe no one had ever said such a thing to her before. And then she abruptly changed the subject, like she’d just realized she was being nice. “Any news on your aunt?”

  He shook his head. “I’m not sure.” It was a hell of a thing to have to admit because he was a guy who prided himself on always having the answers, or at least being able to get them. But the truth was, as it pertained to his family, he’d never known much.

  He also hadn’t given it a lot of thought until Sally had shown up on his doorstep just over two weeks ago now, leaning on a cane with one hand, her other clutching Pita’s pink carrier. He’d taken the cat because she’d seemed so frail and worried, and he’d wanted to alleviate some of her stress.

  He’d never expected to still have the cat.

  Willa scooped Pita up from the desk and the damn cat nuzzled right into her neck. And for the first time in his life, Keane found himself jealous of a cat. “Seriously, what’s your secret with her? You wear tuna as perfume?”

  Willa laughed, a soft musical sound, and nuzzled the cat right back. “Let’s just say I speak her language.”

  “Yeah? What language is that?”

  “Something a man like you wouldn’t understand.” She kissed Pita’s face and gently coaxed her into the carrier. “The language of loneliness.”

  Keane felt something shift in his chest and go tight. “You might be surprised.”

  She stared at him for a beat and then suddenly got very busy, zipping up the carrier, looking anywhere but at him, and he realized she was embarrassed. He slid his hand over hers, stilling her movements. “Have dinner with me.”

  She blinked in surprise.

  Yeah, he was just as surprised.

  “I’m sorry,” she said haltingly. “I shouldn’t have—Honestly, I wasn’t angling for a date—”

  “I know,” he said. “But I’m standing here because I want to keep talking to you, only my stomach is growling and demanding sustenance. Come on, Willa. We’re both off work and neither of us are wearing wedding rings. Let’s go eat.”

  She stared at him. “Just like that?”

  “Just like that.”

  “It doesn’t seem like a smart idea,” she said.

  “Why not?”

  She hesitated and he wanted to ask her about what Archer and Spence had alluded to that night, about her ex being a complete asshole, but that was none of his business. It didn’t mean that he didn’t want to hunt up the guy and teach him a lesson.

  Or two.

  “Lots of reasons,” she finally said.

  “Name one.”

  She opened her mouth and then closed it. “I can’t really seem to come up with a single reason.”

  “Because there isn’t one,” he said. “Look, if I was Elle, would you go out to dinner with me then?”

  “Of course. She’s my friend.”

  “And Spence? Or Archer? If I was one of them, would you eat with me?”

  “Again,” she said, eyes narrowing. “Yes.”

  “But not me.”

  “No.”

  He took the cat carrier from her hands and set it on her desk. Then he stepped in so that they were toe to toe and dipped down a little to look right into her eyes.

  She sucked in a breath. And that wasn’t her only reaction either. Her pupils dilated and her nipples went hard against the thin material of that cute little shirt with the cute little straps.

  She’d been very busy distracting him with her sharp tongue and quick wit, so he’d almost missed it. But this insane attraction he had for her? She felt it too. “Tell me what to do here,” he said quietly. “I know you’re hungry. I can hear your stomach growling louder than mine.”

  She slapped her hands over her lower belly, her fingers first bumping into his abs, which jumped at her touch.

  “Dammit,” she said, her eyes wide on his, the pulse at the base of her throat going batshit crazy. “It’s a noisy beast.”

  “So let me feed it,” he said.

  “Maybe I don’t like you.”

  “Maybe?”

  “Haven’t yet decided,” she admitted.

  Never one to back away from a challenge, he smiled. “So you’ll let me know. You ready?”

  When she still hesitated, he gently rasped the pad of his thumb over the pulse point on her throat. “Do I make you nervous, Willa?”

  She lifted her chin. “Of course not,” she said, her mouth so close to his that he couldn’t help but stare at it, gripped by a driving need to cover it with his.

  “Especially,” she added softly with a light of mischief in those green depths, “since I could knee you in the family jewels right now if I needed to.”

  “I appreciate your restraint,” he said. “Can we go get food now?”

  “I guess.”

  He laughed. “Don’t overwhelm me with enthusiasm.”

  “Just don’t . . . read anything into this,” she said.

  He looked into her eyes and yeah, saw definite attraction for him. Reluctant attraction.

  He’d take it.

  He scooped the carrier in one hand and grabbed hers in his other.

  “Afraid I’ll change my mind?” she asked, looking amused.

  “More afraid you’ll carry out that threat to my family jewels.”

  Her startled laugh warmed him to his toes. Game on, he thought. Even if he had no idea what that game was.

  Chapter 5

  #TheFirstCutIsTheDeepest

  Willa had no idea what the hell she thought she was doing agreeing to go out with Keane for dinner, but apparently her feet knew because they took her back into the grooming room to tell Rory.

  The girl was crossed-legged on the floor in front of Carl, brushing him. Sitting facing her, Carl’s head was higher than Rory’s but he sat still happily, smiling.

  Carl loved attention, all of it.

  “I’m heading out,” Willa said.

  “Thanks for the newsflash.”

  “I’m going with Keane.”

  Rory froze. Only her eyes swiveled to W
illa. “Has hell frozen over?”

  Willa sighed. Given that all her current feelings for Keane were mixed up with her past feelings for him, she could hardly explain it to someone else much less herself. “It’s just dinner.”

  “Uh-huh,” Rory murmured, stroking an ecstatic Carl. “Remember you’re the one who said the devil himself couldn’t drag your cold, dead corpse out on a date with Keane even if he was hot as balls.”

  “Shh!” Willa took a quick look behind her but thankfully Keane hadn’t followed. “It’s all very . . . complicated.”

  “Complicated,” Rory repeated, amused. “Maybe we should have the birds-and-bees talk, like you always try to have with me when I’m attracted to the wrong-for-me guys.”

  “Funny,” Willa said. The fact was, both of them were attracted to the wrong men, still.

  But Rory was on a roll, ticking off points on her fingers. “No sleeping with him on the first date, no matter how amazing he kisses—”

  “Oh my God, keep your voice down!” Willa looked behind her again. “I’m not going to sleep with him on the first date.” Even if the low, sexy tone of his voice did very interesting, very distracting things to her body. Nope, she wasn’t going down that road because that road led to her downfall every time. This was just dinner, that was it. It was the only way she could ensure her emotional security. No more falling for a guy too quickly. Nope. Not gonna happen.

  Rory wasn’t done reciting the notes. “A public setting, don’t take your eyes off your drink, and don’t have more than one.”

  Any humor in this reversal of roles faded fast at that as the conversation took a turn she hadn’t expected but should have. Neither of them would ever forget the night Rory had become a part of Willa’s life.

  Rory had been in the foster system for ten years when she turned eighteen and had been set loose into the big, bad world all on her own.

  And oh how well Willa knew the feeling. It’d felt like she was being thrown away.

  Rory had met a guy at a bar who’d seemed fun, gregarious, and charismatic. She’d somehow missed his stalker, predator characteristics.

  Willa had been on a walk through the Marina Green one night when she’d found Rory in the park, sick as a dog from the drug that had been dumped into her drink. Willa had taken her to the hospital, helped her recover from the events she couldn’t even remember, given her a job, and basically bullied her back to life.

  Willa knew that Rory felt like she owed her for all that but she didn’t. She also knew that Rory would do absolutely anything for her, which she took very seriously. She had to. Because once upon a time she’d been that lost little girl too.

  Rory was watching her, her eyes giving away her worry.

  “I’ll be fine,” Willa said. “Really.”

  Just then came a single knock on the back door. Max stood there in cargoes, work shirt, and full utility gear, looking pretty badass, clearly coming in off a job for Archer. “Hey,” he said, eyes tracking straight to Rory. “How’s it going?”

  Since Rory had apparently swallowed her tongue, Willa smiled at him. “Great. Rory’s just finishing up Carl.” She looked at Rory. “Lock up for me?”

  Still silent—hugely unlike her—Rory nodded.

  Willa thought maybe she was missing a piece of the puzzle here but she couldn’t very well ask Rory with Max standing tall and handsome right there, his eyes also holding secrets. Willa gave Carl a kiss on the head and then the same to Rory, making the girl laugh.

  “Just go already,” Rory said, looking embarrassed.

  “Be safe,” Willa said to her.

  “I’ll make sure of it,” Max said and Willa met his serious gaze.

  Yep. Definitely missing a piece of the puzzle. “Thanks.”

  He nodded and five minutes later she and Keane walked out to his truck. He set the cat carrier carefully in the backseat like maybe it was a ticking bomb but made her smile when he hesitated and then locked a seatbelt around it.

  When he caught her watching, he shrugged. “She’s just ornery enough to knock herself off the seat and die and then come back to haunt me, so I’m taking all necessary precautions.” He opened the passenger door for her but caught her before she could slide in. “You’re cold.”

  Actually, she was freezing. “I forgot my jacket this morning—No, don’t give me yours,” she said when he made to take his off.

  So instead he spread it open and wrapped as much of it around her as possible. Chest to chest, thighs to thighs . . . and everything in between mashed up against each other all cozy like.

  Except it didn’t feel cozy.

  It felt . . . sexy as hell.

  It would’ve taken more control than she had to keep her hands to herself. She wrapped herself around him, letting her fingers trail up the sculpted muscles of his back.

  At her touch, his gaze met hers, dark and heated. Oh boy. She was in trouble here, and she forced herself to back away and get into her seat.

  A minute later, he’d rounded the front of the truck and slid in behind the wheel. He craned around to eyeball Pita like she was a pissed-off rattlesnake.

  Willa laughed and Keane turned all that concentrated hotness on her. “What?”

  “I’m picturing Petunia coming back from the dead to haunt you.”

  With a small smile, he leaned in close and slid his fingers along her jaw. “You think that’s funny?”

  “I’d do the same thing.”

  His mouth quirked. “Revengeful, huh?”

  “Absolutely.”

  His fingers still on her jaw, he let his thumb slide lightly over her lower lip, making it hunger for a touch.

  His touch.

  No, make that his mouth. She wanted his mouth on hers and wasn’t that just annoying as hell. “This isn’t happening,” she said out loud, because surely that would make it true.

  “What isn’t?” he asked. “Dinner with me despite you saying that the devil himself couldn’t drag your cold, dead corpse out on a date with me, even if I was . . . how did you put it? Hot as balls?”

  “I didn’t say that!” She felt her face flush. She was doing her best to desperately hold on to her resentment over their past, but even she could admit she was quickly losing the battle here, to curiosity.

  And lust.

  “If you’re going to eavesdrop,” she said with as much dignity as she could, which wasn’t much, “at least get your facts straight.”

  He just laughed, a sexy sound that woke up all her happy spots, damn him. And he knew it too. She sunk in her seat a little, crossed her arms over her chest and looked out the window. “Be amused all you want, I’m holding firm.”

  He didn’t look worried.

  Which in turn worried her.

  They made a stop on Vallejo Street, at the top of the hill lined with beautiful old Victorians. Here the houses were big and
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