The trouble with mistlet.., p.9
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.9

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
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  wanted to go with. I was new there so I didn’t have friends to talk any sense into me. I caught you coming out of one of your football practices and I thought . . . Well, never mind what I thought. You were in a hurry, which I didn’t realize until I stopped you.” She squeezed her eyes shut as remembered humiliation washed over her. “I spoke too fast then too. Way too fast. You had to ask me to repeat the question. Twice.”

  He let out a breath, closed his eyes, and dropped his forehead to hers. “Tell me I was nice about it. Tell me I wasn’t a complete eighteen-year-old dick.”

  “You don’t get to ask that of me,” she said and gave him another push. “Because I was so forgettable that you don’t even remember me.”

  “Yeah, so I was a complete eighteen-year-old dick,” he muttered. “Shit.” He tightened his grip on her when she tried to break free. “Listen to me, Willa, because I want to make something perfectly clear here.” He opened his eyes and held hers prisoner. “You’re the most unforgettable person I’ve ever met.”

  She let out a soft sigh of unintentional need because pathetic as it was, the words felt like a balm on her raw soul. “Don’t—”

  “Tell me what I said to you that day.”

  “You said ‘sounds cool.’” She dropped her forehead to his chest. “And I practically floated home. I didn’t have a dress. Or shoes. Or money to get into the dance. I had to beg, borrow, and steal, but I managed to do it, to get myself together enough that I’d be worthy of a date with Keane Winters.”

  A rough sound of regret escaped him. “I had a real problem with girls back then,” he said. “I didn’t know how to say no.”

  “Cue the violins.”

  He grimaced. “I know. But there were these sports groupies and—”

  “Oh my God.” She covered her ears. “Stop talking! I don’t want to know any of this.”

  “I’m just saying that they used to hang around outside of practice and then jump us when we left the locker room. If you were there, I probably thought you were one of them.”

  Willing to concede that this might actually be true, she lifted a shoulder but managed to hold on to most of her mad. “You should have known by taking one look at me that I wasn’t a damn groupie.”

  “You’d think. But eighteen-year-old guys are assholes.” He looked genuinely regretful. “Tell me the rest.”

  “Nothing more to tell. You didn’t show. And you never so much as looked at me again.”

  “Willa—”

  “End of story,” she said. “Both back then and now.” She ducked beneath his arms and fumbled for her keys, practically falling into her apartment. She shut the door harder than was strictly necessary and didn’t know if she was disappointed or relieved when he didn’t even attempt to follow her.

  Chapter 7

  #FallenAndCantGetUp

  Keane woke up to a heavy pressure on his chest that felt like a heart attack—no doubt the result of wracking his brain all night long, trying to remember Willa from high school.

  To his chagrin, he still couldn’t.

  He’d been telling her the utter truth when he’d said that a lot of girls had waited on the players after practices. He’d ignored most of them and when they’d refused to be ignored, he’d flashed a smile and done his best to flirt his way to the parking lot rather than hurt anyone’s feelings.

  So it killed him that he’d hurt Willa.

  But the truth was, he hadn’t given a lot of thought to how any of those girls had taken his ridiculous and stupid comments designed to help him escape. It hadn’t been until he’d gotten to college that he’d lost some of his shyness around women.

  Okay, all of it.

  He’d met his first real girlfriend—Julie Carmen—his freshman year and they’d gotten serious fast, fueled by the sheer, mind-numbing hunger of eighteen-year-old lust.

  By the end of that first year, he was no longer thinking with his head, at least not the one on top of his shoulders. For the first time in his life he had someone so into him that she wanted to spend every waking moment with him, and he’d gotten off on that. He’d wanted to marry her, ridiculous as that sounded now. He’d told himself to play it cool, to hold back, but he had no real experience with that and ended up blurting it out at a football game over hot dogs and beer.

  Real smooth.

  Julie had been cool about it and he’d been . . . happy, truly happy for the first time in his life. That had lasted two weeks until she’d dumped him, saying she’d only been in it for a good time and because he had a hot body, and she was sorry but he wanted way more from her than she could give.

  He hadn’t reverted to his shyness around women. Instead he’d accepted that he wasn’t good with or made for long term, a fact made easy to back up since he had no desire to give his heart away again.

  But one-night stands . . . he’d gone on to excel there, for quite a few tumble-filled years. Until now, in fact. Willa was unlike any woman he’d ever met. She was passionate, smart, sexy . . . and she made him laugh.

  And her smile could light up his entire day.

  He wasn’t actually sure what to do with that, but he knew he wanted to do something.

  The weight on his chest got heavier. Yep, probably a heart attack. Well, hey, he’d nearly made it to thirty and it’d been a pretty good run too.

  No regrets.

  Well maybe one—that he wouldn’t get to kiss Willa again or see that soft and dazed look on her face after he did, the one that said she wanted him every bit as much as he wanted her.

  The pressure on his chest shifted, getting even heavier now. He opened his eyes and nearly had a stroke instead of a heart attack.

  Pita was sitting on his ribcage, her head bent to his, nose to nose, staring at him.

  “Meow,” she said in a tone suggesting not only that she was starving, but that he was in danger of having his face eaten off if he didn’t get up and feed her.

  Remembering Willa’s admonishment that he hadn’t tried to connect with the damn thing, he lifted a hand and patted her on the head.

  Pita’s eyes narrowed.

  “Right, you’re a cat not a dog.” He stroked a hand down her back instead and she lifted into his touch, her eyes half closed in what he hoped was pleasure.

  “You like that?” he murmured, thinking middle ground! So he did it again, stroked her along her spindly spine for a second time.

  A rumble came from Pita’s throat, rough and uneven, like a motor starting up for the first time in a decade.

  “Wow,” he said. “Is that an actual purr? Better be careful, you might start to almost like me.”

  On his third stroke down her back, she bit him. Hard. Not enough to break the skin but she sank her teeth in a bit and held there, her eyes narrowed to slits.

  “Still not friends,” he gritted out. “Noted. Now let go.” When she didn’t, he sat up and dislodged her, and with an irritated chirp, she leapt to the end of the bed, turning her back on him and lifting her hind leg, going to work cleaning her lady town.

  He looked down at his hand. No blood, good sign. He slid out of bed and . . .

  Stepped in something disgustingly runny and still warm. Cat yak. He hopped around and swore the air blue for a while and then managed to clean up without yakking himself.

  Barely.

  He found the little antichrist sitting up high on the unfinished loft floor, peeking over the edge down at where he stood in the kitchen.

  “Are you kidding me?” he asked.

  “Mew.”

  Shit, she was stuck. There was a ladder against the wall because Mason had been working up there this week. Keane, hating heights, had avoided going up there at all and had absolutely no idea how she’d managed to climb the construction ladder in the first place.

  Blowing out a sigh, he climbed up halfway and held out his arms. “Come on then.”

  Pita lifted a paw and began to wash her face.

  He dropped his head and laughed. What else could he do? Clearl
y the cat didn’t give a shit that he had a height phobia. And yeah, it was a ridiculous phobia for a builder to have but that didn’t change a damn thing.

  He glanced down—oh shit, he hated that—and assured himself it was only eight feet. Then he kept going. “Cat,” he said at the top and reached for her.

  She jumped, but not for him. Instead she hit the ladder over his shoulder, lithely running past him like she was Tinker Bell complete with wings.

  From the top, Keane looked down and felt himself start to sweat. Grinding his back teeth, he climbed down and found Pita staring disdainfully at her food bowl, which was still full from last night.

  This got his attention. “You didn’t eat? Since when don’t you eat?”

  She swished her tail and gave a “mew” that he figured translated to that shit is for cats and I’m a Queen Bee, remember?

  He took a closer look and realized she seemed a little thin, at least for her, which concerned him in a way her attitude hadn’t. He’d called Sally three times this week alone but hadn’t gotten a return call. What if Pita wasted away and died before Sally came for her? How would he explain that?

  Worried, he went hunting through his admittedly not well-stocked cabinets and found a can of tuna. Score. “Cats love tuna,” he told Pita. “Willa says so.”

  Pita just stared at him censurably with those deep blue eyes.

  Finding a can opener took a while, making him realize something a little startling. He’d lived here for going on six months now and though it was by far his favorite property he’d ever owned . . . he’d not ever really moved in. Yes, he had all his stuff here but that wasn’t much. He’d moved around frequently over the years, from one property to the next as he fixed them up and sold them, so he’d gotten good at traveling light.

  Maybe too good.

  Once he got his hands on a can opener, he waved it triumphantly at Pita, who looked distinctly unimpressed. He opened the can and dumped it into another bowl and set it in front of her.

  She froze and then sniffed it with the caution of a royal food-taster.

  “It’s albacore,” he said. “The good stuff.”

  She gave it another brief sniff and then turned and walked away.

  He stared after her. “Seriously? You lick your own ass but turn your nose up at fucking tuna?”

  He was still staring after her in disbelief when his cell phone rang. “Keane Winters,” he snapped, not reading the display. “Cat for sale.”

  There was a long pause.

  “Hello?” he said.

  “Are you selling my cat?” came a soft and slightly shaken older woman’s voice.

  Shit. His great-aunt Sally. “Sorry, bad joke,” he said and grimaced, shoving his free hand through his hair. “And am I ever glad to hear from you. I’ve been calling—”

  “I know.” Her voice sounded a little faint. “I’m out front, may I come in?”

  “Yes, of course.” Was she kidding? She was here to pick up Pita and for that he’d roll out the red carpet. “You didn’t have to call first—”

  “I didn’t want to interrupt any . . . meetings you might have had. With women.”

  He choked back a laugh as he moved through the house toward the front. What was it with people thinking he had a lineup of chicks every night? “I’ll make sure to keep all the women locked up in the bedroom while you’re here,” he said.

  She gasped in his ear.

  “I’m kidding, Aunt Sally. It’s just me.” Not that he wouldn’t mind having Willa sprawled out in his bed right about now . . .

  He opened the door. Sally was bundled up in a thick coat, hat, scarf, gloves, and boots, and since she was under five feet tall, she looked a bit like a hobbit. Hat quivering, she walked ahead of him into the foyer and then stopped abruptly, her back to him as she studied his place.

  “It’s beautiful,” she said softly. “You do beautiful work. I never understood your parents’ contempt for what you do with your bare hands.”

  Leaving him stunned, she called for the cat. “Petunia, darling, come to Mommy.”

  Pita came running, eyes bright, a happy chirp escaping her, the same sound she used with Willa too.

  Old woman and cat had a long hug and then his aunt finally straightened slowly, her back still to him.

  There was an awkward silence that he had no idea how to broach. It was safe to say he didn’t know his own parents all that well. Yes, they’d raised him. Somewhat. But the truth was he’d been a latchkey kid who’d spent most of his time at sporting events, with friends, or in front of a gaming system. When he’d turned eighteen and moved out, there’d been a blast of overwhelming relief from his parents. They’d been virtual strangers to each other and in the years since they hadn’t gotten to know each other any better.

  He knew his aunt even less. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

  She was silent for a long moment. “Do you ever have regrets about our family?” she asked instead of answering. “How little we all bother with each other?”

  One thing the Winterses didn’t do was discuss feelings. Ever. In fact, they buried them deep and pretended they didn’t exist. So he stared at her stiff spine, an uncomfortable feeling swirling in his gut.

  She sighed. “Right. Listen, I’m sorry about this, Keane.”

  Oh shit. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

  She stayed where she was but he realized her shoulders were a little slumped as she pulled open her large handbag. From it, she pulled out a plastic Ziploc baggie filled with what were unmistakably cat toys. “For Petunia,” she said.

  “But—”

  “And I’ve got her special blankie too. She’ll need it for nap times.”

  “Aunt Sally.” Gently he turned her to face him. “What’s going on?”

  “I can’t take her back yet.” Her rheumy blue eyes went suspiciously watery. “I need you to keep her a little bit longer. Do you think you can do that without selling her?”

  “I was kidding about that.” Mostly. As for the question of could he handle Pita . . . He’d handled a lot of shit in his life so theoretically he could handle one little cat.

  And then there was the built-in bonus—he’d have a reason for Willa to let him back into her shop, and yeah, he was pretty sure he needed to give her a reason. “Talk to me.”

  “It’s nothing for you to worry about.” She reached up to pat his head like he was a child, but being a whole lot shorter than him she had to settle for an awkward pat to his forearm. “I’m having some cat food delivered,” she said. “Petunia needs routine.”

  “And what do you need?”

  She inhaled a shaky breath. “I need to make this transition as easy as possible for her.”

  Keane took her small, frail hand in his much bigger one. “Done. But now you, Aunt Sally. What can I do for you?”

  There was another long pause and then a suspicious sniff, and in the way of men everywhere the world over, his heart froze in utter terror.

  “I didn’t know you as a child,” she said quietly. “And that was my own doing. Nor did I bother with you when you got older, not until I needed you anyway. And that’s also my shame.” She squeezed his fingers. “You’re a good man, Keane Winters, and you deserved better from me. From all of us. I’ve got no right to ask this of you, but please. Please take care of my baby.”

  And then she was gone.

  He turned and stared down at the cat, who stared right back. “I think we’re stuck with each other now.”

  Her eyes said she was unimpressed. And then she turned and, with her tail high in the air, stalked off.

 
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