The trouble with mistlet.., p.8
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.8

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
 

  The next day she’d found her cash drawer in the shop emptied of three hundred bucks and a stack of her gift cards verified and missing.

  For a long time she’d blamed herself and then she’d found her mad and had ached for an apology. But that ache had faded, replaced with some hard-won maturity. She no longer was that same woman who’d give a perfect stranger the shirt off her back. Nope, she’d care for a perfect stranger’s cat though, and at that thought, she snorted.

  “It’s funny?” Keane asked.

  “Not funny ha-ha. More like”—she mimed a gun with her first finger and thumb, bringing it up to her temple—“blow my brains out funny.”

  Keane didn’t look amused. “This is the serial creeper, right?”

  Since he seemed more than a little tense all of a sudden, she smiled to show him she wasn’t bothered by this blast from her past. Hell, she was getting used to it. “Give me a sec?”

  He nodded but didn’t go away. Okaaay. So she composed her answering text with an audience:

  The person you’re trying to reach has forwarded this text to the police, who are still trying to locate you. Please text your current addy and place of employment to make it easy for them but know it’s not necessary as this was a felony case and they’ll be tracking you down by triangulation of your cell-phone pings.

  She felt Keane, a big, strong presence at her back. “Exactly what did this guy do to you?”

  Nothing she wanted to get into right now. Or ever. “Nothing but live up to the contact name I gave him.”

  “I especially like the cell-phone-ping thing,” Keane said.

  She laughed a little. “I don’t actually know if that’s a thing. I saw it on Criminal Minds once and it stuck with me.”

  “Nice.” His voice was warm and approving. “Now forward the text to the cops like you said.”

  She grimaced. “I was actually just fibbing about that part. But I did promise Archer I’d let him take care of it personally if Ethan contacted me again. Archer used to be a cop and he hasn’t lost any of his skills.” She craned her neck and met Keane’s gaze. “I think he’s been really looking forward to this.”

  “Good. Forward the text.”

  “Now?”

  “Now.”

  Okay then. She forwarded the text to Archer. “Feel better?” she asked as her phone buzzed with Archer’s immediate response:

  On it. Don’t worry.

  “Yeah,” Keane said. “I feel better.”

  They left the house, with Willa giving it a final look back as they walked out to his truck. It felt a little silly to fall for a house but that’s what she’d done.

  Keane drove to the Embarcadero. It had a view that eclipsed any other place in the city, at least in Willa’s opinion. They walked along the water and stopped to take in the heart-stopping view of the bay.

  “Thought we’d eat here,” Keane said of the Waterfront Restaurant behind them.

  She hesitated. “When you said ‘let’s get some food,’ I thought we’d get a burger or a taco,” she said. “I don’t think I’m dressed for this.”

  He let his gaze run over her, taking in her sweater and skinny jeans. She’d need to lose ten pounds before she could get anywhere even close to skinny.

  “I like what you’re wearing,” he said. “You’re beautiful.”

  This actually left her speechless.

  “And anyway, I’m hungry for more than just a quickie.”

  She stared at him. “Is that a double entendre?”

  “Actually, it might have been a triple entendre.”

  She laughed and looked at the restaurant front. She’d walked by the place enough times, always drooling over the great view and menu, but she’d never actually been inside.

  Turned out, the food was fantastic.

  And so was the company, dammit.

  As they ate, they watched the moon hang above the water. A salty breeze brushed through the outside patio, mingling with the warm air coming out of the standing heaters beside every dining table.

  It was unexpectedly . . . romantic. So much so that she had to keep reminding her hormones to take a chill pill, not that they listened. She was far too attracted to Keane for her own good. He was smart, funny, sexy . . . At some point she came up with the brilliant idea to concentrate on what she didn’t like. “Why aren’t there any holiday decorations up at your place?” she asked.

  “Because you bought out all the decorations in the entire city.”

  Okay, so she had to laugh at that. “Elle thinks my shop looks like Christmas and New Year had a baby who threw up on everything.”

  He smiled and she thought bingo, something else she didn’t like about him—he didn’t appreciate her admittedly obsessive need to celebrate the holidays, supersize style.

  “It could’ve been worse,” he said. “I didn’t see Santa himself represented anywhere in your shop.”

  “He’s coming soon,” she admitted. “I’m doing a Santa Extravaganza. Customers bring their pets in to be primped and then can get into a photo booth with Santa.”

  “Nice. Love your entrepreneurial spirit.” He smiled. “So do you go nuts for all the holidays or just Christmas?”

  Because the question was genuine and there didn’t seem to be any sense of mocking in his dark gaze, she answered with more honesty than she’d intended. “Yes, all the holidays. It’s a holdover from when I was a kid and didn’t always get to celebrate them.”

  His smile faded as he looked at her and she suddenly developed a fascination with her last sip of wine.

  “Parents not into the holidays?” he asked.

  She shrugged. “My dad got himself killed while hunting with his buddies when I was two. My mom was young when she had me, too young. She’s . . . not really cut out for parenting.”

  An understatement. She’d gotten better over the years, enough to call and check in once in a while.

  And ask for money.

  Keane slid his hand to hers on the table and gently squeezed her fingers. “I’m glad you treat yourself to the holidays then. So does Father Time come on New Year’s?”

  “No,” she said on a laugh and then admitted the rest. “But Cupid comes on Valentine’s Day.”

  He stared at her and then burst out laughing, a sound she was all too quickly becoming addicted to. Damn. She quickly wracked her brain to come up with more things she didn’t like about him. Such as he seemed unwilling—not incapable, which would’ve been different, but unwilling—to get attached to Petunia. Also, he clearly didn’t fully appreciate her holiday decorating skills. And then there was the fact that he kissed like sex on a stick—No, wait. That was a pro not a con.

  “How about you?” she asked. “What’s your take on holidays?”

  “I don’t have a reason as good as you do for going one way or the other,” he said. “I was a late-in-life unhappy surprise to a couple of college professors who’d already raised two daughters. They were really into their work. Holidays got in the way of that work.”

  Well that sounded lonely. And sad. “So you didn’t get to celebrate much either?” she asked, suddenly feeling . . . small. Back in school she’d judged him for being a jock, when maybe sports had been all he’d had.

  And if that thought didn’t open up a whole big can of worms . . .

  “No, not much celebration at the Winters’s house,” he said. “And you didn’t want my pity, Willa, so don’t you dare give me any. I didn’t know any different. It didn’t bother me.”

  “But . . .” She swallowed the rest of that sentence because he was right. He’d treated her pride with respect and she needed to do the same. “Do you all keep in touch?”

  “Not as much as we should.” Regret slashed through his features. “I hardly even knew I had a great-aunt Sally until she showed up on my doorstep just over two weeks ago now.”

  Willa had spent a few years searching for long-lost family to no avail. She was riveted by this peek into Keane’s life. “Really?”
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br />   “Yeah. She’s my grandma’s sister,” he said, “and apparently there was some big feud fifty years ago involving the two of them falling for the same man.”

  “Wow. Who ended up with the guy?”

  “My grandma,” he said. “And then I guess she caught her sister flirting with him and accused Sally of trying to steal him out from right beneath her nose. It divided the family.”

  “That’s awful.”

  “I’m pretty sure even without the scandal, we’d have all drifted apart,” he said. “We’re not much for emotion, us Winterses. We like to keep it all closed off and we’re good at it.”

  She shook her head because though she knew he believed that, she’d seen him display emotion, plenty of it. Frustration and exhaustion when he’d first brought her Petunia. Anger, though he’d done his best to hide it from her, when she’d gotten the text from Ethan.

  And then there’d been the sheer blast of passion and heat when he’d kissed her.

  Yeah, he felt plenty. He just didn’t like it.

  And that she could understand. She didn’t like it when emotions got the better of her either. The difference between him and her was that he could zip them up and walk away.

  She wasn’t made like that.

  After dinner, they walked some more, ending up inside the colorful and packed Marketplace in the Ferry Building. She bought a loaf of fresh bread and Keane picked up what looked like an expensive whiskey. When she started to panic that the evening was feeling way too much like a real date, she pretended to be shocked at the time and suggested she had to get home.

  Keane gave no indication of being annoyed or disappointed, just took her hand and walked her back to his truck. When he drove around the block of her building, making her realize he was looking for a parking spot, the facts sunk in.

  One, his five o’clock shadow had a shadow and made her physically ache with yearning to feel it brush over her skin.

  Two, he had a bottle of alcohol.

  Three, he was clearly planning to walk her up to her apartment.

  It all added up to an uncomfortable truth—if he so much as looked at her mouth in that innately masculine, watchful way of his, she’d probably jump his sexy bones.

  “Don’t worry about finding a spot,” she said quickly, reaching for the door handle as he slowed down, his gaze on a car up ahead that was getting ready to pull out. “I can get out right here.” She smiled at him brightly and hoped the whites of her eyes weren’t showing, revealing her panic. “Thankssomuchfordinner,” she managed and hopped out.

  “Willa. Wait—”

  But nope, she couldn’t. She needed to get the heck out of Dodge before she did something incredibly stupid. So she ran into the courtyard of her building without looking back.

  It was second nature to slow at the fountain and search her pockets. Dog treats. Her keys. And yes, a nickel, which she tossed into the water to make her usual wish.

  Old Man Eddie, the homeless guy who lived in the alley, poked his head out. He was sitting on his box between two Dumpsters—his favorite spot because from his perch he could see both the courtyard and the street. He was always chipper and smiling, but tonight his smile was devoid of its usual wattage.

  “Any of your wishes come true yet?” he asked.

  “Not yet. Are you okay?”

  He lifted a shoulder. “Waiting for my holiday cheer to kick in.”

  A lot of people in the building took turns making sure Eddie had everything he needed, but mostly it was Spence, herself, and Elle in charge. They’d tried getting him into a shelter several times but he preferred his alley. She peered over and could see why he hadn’t found his holiday cheer yet: it was dark and dank. “Brought you dinner,” she said and handed him her doggie bag. “Lobster linguine. Bad for our diet, but totally amazing.”

  “Thanks, dudette. What’s the hurry? Bad date?”

  “Worse,” she said. “Great date.”

  Clutching the leftovers, he nodded like he got it all too well. “Thanks for dinner. Think I’ll walk to the Presidio first though. All the Victorians are decorated with wreaths and lights, and some of them have baskets of candy out.”

  “Be safe,” she said and watched him go, her own problems dissolving as her mind raced to find a way to help Eddie find his cheer.

  And then it came to her.

  Changing directions, she ran to her shop. Quickly letting herself in, she pulled down a string of lights that she’d put up along her checkout counter. She grabbed an extension cord and her staple gun too. Less than three minutes later she was in Eddie’s alley, stapling the string of lights above his spot—between the two Dumpsters.

  Stepping back, she eyed her work. The lights lit the alley up in brilliant colors, warming the area and giving some cheer to it as well. Nodding in satisfaction, she left.

  When she exited the elevator on the fourth floor five minutes later she was shaking with cold and so deep into her own thoughts that the tall, built shadow of a man standing there scared her nearly out of her own skin.

  “Dammit, Keane,” she gasped, hand to her heart. “You startled me.”

  “Did you really just decorate the alley for the homeless guy that lives there?” he asked.

  “Maybe. And his name is Eddie.”

  Keane’s eyes were warm and went a long way toward heating her up. So did his smile.

  “Are you laughing at me?” she asked.

  “I’d never laugh at a woman who decorates dark alleys and carries a mean stapler gun at crotch level.”

  She looked down at the tool in her hand and rolled her eyes. “The alley looked lonely.”

  “You mean Eddie looked lonely and you wanted to do something for him.”

  That too.

  He tipped her face up and she found his eyes more serious now. “You’re pretty amazing,” he said. “You know that?”

  She squirmed a little bit at the unexpected praise but he didn’t give her any room. “If I ask you a serious question, Willa, will you give me an honest answer?”

  She hesitated. “Maybe.” And maybe not . . .

  “Why don’t you want to like me?”

  She blinked. “What?”

  “You heard me. I’m missing something, something big I think. No more playing, Willa; tell me. You gave up the right to keep it a secret after you kissed me.”

  “You kissed me back,” she whispered.

  “Yes, and I’m going to kiss you again soon as you finish talking.”

  “No, actually, you’re not.” She drew in a shaky deep breath, held it for a minute, and then let it go in one long shudder. “Fine, I’ll tell you the truth,” she said, tired of holding it in anyway. “But just remember, you asked.”

  He nodded.

  “We went to high school together for a year.” Once that escaped, the rest came out really fast, as if that could help ease the reliving of the humiliating experience. “You were the popular jock and I was . . . a nobody. You stood me up for my first—and last—dance.” Just saying it out loud made her mad all over again. “And then to add insult to injury, you don’t even remember.”

  He just stared at her. “Run that by me one more time. Slower. And in English.”

  “No,” she said, turning to her front door. “I’m not going to say it again. It was hard enough to live with and even harder to say it the one time.”

  He caught her and with gentle steel pulled her back around and pressed her up against the hallway wall. Hands still on her arms, he leaned in, holding her there. “Why don’t I remember you?”

  “Because you’re an ass?” she asked sweetly, pushing ineffectively at his chest. “Back up.”

  “In a minute.” He wasn’t going to be distracted. “You weren’t in any of my classes.”

  “No. I was a freshman when you were a senior. There was a Sadie Hawkins dance and you were the only guy in the whole school I
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