A guy stood on the other side of the glass, mouth grim, expression dialed to Tall, Dark and Attitude-ridden. He was something too, all gorgeous and broody and – hold up. There was something familiar about him, enough that her feet propelled her forward out of pure curiosity. When it hit her halfway to the door, she froze, her heart just about skidding to a stop.
“Keane Winters,” she murmured, lip curling like she’d just eaten a black licorice. She hated black licorice. But she was looking at the only man on the planet who could make her feel all puckered up as well as good about her decision to give up men.
In fact, if she’d only given them up sooner, say back on the day of the Sadie Hawkins dance in her freshman year of high school when he’d stood her up, she’d have saved herself a lot of heartache in the years since.
On the other side of the door, Keane shoved his mirrored sunglasses to the top of his head, revealing dark chocolate eyes that she knew could melt when he was amused or feeling flirtatious, or turn to ice when he was so inclined.
They were ice now.
Catching her gaze, he lifted a cat carrier. A bright pink bedazzled carrier.
He had a cat.
Her entire being wanted to soften at this knowledge because that meant on some level at least he had to be a good guy, right?
Luckily her brain clicked on, remembering everything, every little detail of that long ago night. Like how she’d had to borrow a dress for the dance from a girl in her class who’d gleefully lorded it over her, how she’d had to beg her foster mother to let her go, how she’d stolen a Top Ramen from the locked pantry and eaten it dry in the bathroom so she wouldn’t have to buy both her dinner and his, as was custom for the “backwards” dance.
“We’re closed,” she said through the still locked glass door.
Not a word escaped his lips. He simply raised the cat carrier another inch, like he was God’s gift.
And he had been. At least in high school.
Wishing she’d gotten some caffeine before dealing with this, she blew out a breath and stepped closer, annoyed at her eyes because they refused to leave his as she unlocked and then opened the door. Just another customer, she told herself. One that had ruined her life like it was nothing without so much as an apology… “Morning,” she said, determined to be polite.
Not a single flicker of recognition crossed his face and she found something even more annoying than this man being on her doorstep.
The fact that she’d been so forgettable he didn’t even remember her.
“I’m closed until nine.” She said this in her most pleasant voice although a little bit of eff-you might’ve been implied.
“I’ve got to be at work by nine,” he said. “I want to board a cat for the day.”
Keane had always been big and intimidating. It was what had made him such an effective jock. He’d ruled on the football field, the basketball court and the baseball diamond. The perfect trifecta, the all-around package.
Every girl in the entire school – and also a good amount of the teachers – had spent an indecent amount of time eyeballing that package.
But just as Willa had given up men, she’d even longer ago given up thinking about that time, inarguably the worst years of her life. While Keane had been off breaking records and winning hearts, she’d been drowning under the pressures of school and work, not to mention basic survival.
She got that it wasn’t his fault her memories of that time were horrific. Nor was it his fault that just looking at him brought them all back to her. But emotions weren’t logical. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’m all full up today.”
“I’ll pay double.”
He had a voice like fine whiskey. Not that she ever drank fine whiskey. Even the cheap stuff was a treat. And maybe it was just her imagination, but she was having a hard time getting past the fact that he was both the same and yet had changed. He was still tall, of course, and built sexy as hell, damn him. Broad shoulders, lean hips, biceps straining his shirt as he held up the cat carrier.
He wore faded ripped jeans on his long legs and scuffed work boots. His only concession to the San Francisco winter was a long sleeved t-shirt that enhanced all those ripped muscles and invited her to BITE ME in big block letters across his chest.
She wasn’t going to lie to herself, she kind of wanted to. Hard.
He stood there exuding raw, sexual power and energy – not that she was noticing. Nor was she taking in his expression that said maybe he’d already had a bad day.
He could join her damn club.
And at that thought, she mentally smacked herself in the forehead. No! There would be no club joining. She’d set boundaries for herself. She was Switzerland. Neutral. No importing or exporting of anything including sexy smoldering glances, hot body parts, nothing.
Especially not with Keane Winters, thank you very much. And anyway, she didn’t board animals for the general public. Yes, sometimes she boarded as special favors for clients, a service she called “fur-babysitting” because her capacity here was too small for official boarding. If and when she agreed to “babysit” overnight as a favor, it meant taking her boarders home with her, so she was extremely selective.
And handsome men who’d once been terribly mean boys who ditched painfully shy girls after she’d summoned up every ounce of her courage to ask him out to a dance did not fit her criteria. “I don’t board—“ she started, only to be interrupted by an unholy howl from inside the pink cat carrier.
It was automatic for her to reach for it, which Keane readily released with what looked to be comic-like relief.
Turning her back on him, Willa carried the carrier to the counter, incredibly aware that Keane followed her through her shop, moving with an unusually easy grace for such a big guy.
The cat was continuously howling now so she quickly unzipped the carrier, expecting the animal inside to be dying giving the level of unhappiness it’d displayed.
The ear-splitting caterwauling immediately stopped and a huge Siamese cat blinked vivid blue eyes owlishly up at her. She had a pale, creamy coat with a darker facial mask that matched its black ears, legs, and paws.
“Well aren’t you beautiful,” Willa said softly and slipped her hands into the box.
The cat immediately allowed herself to be lifted, pressing her face into Willa’s throat for a cuddle.
“Aw,” Willa said gently. “It’s alright now, I’ve got you. You just hated that carrier, didn’t you?”
Keane, hands on hips now as he glared at the cat. “Are you kidding me?”
He scowled. “My great aunt’s sick and needs help. She dropped the cat off with me last night.”
That was a pretty nice thing he’d done, taking the cat in for his sick aunt.
“The minute Sally left,” Keane went on, “This thing went gonzo.”
Willa looked down at the cat, who gazed back at her, quiet, serene, positively angelic. “What did she do?”
Keane snorted. “What didn’t she do would be the better question. She hid under my bed and tore up my mattress. Then she helped herself to everything on my counters, knocking stuff to the floor, destroying my laptop and tablet and phone all in one fell swoop. And then she…” He trailed off and appeared to chomp on his back teeth.
“Took a dump in my favorite running shoes.”
Willa did her best not to laugh out loud and say “good girl.” It took her a minute. “Maybe she’s just upset to be away from home, and missing your aunt. Cats are creatures of habit. They don’t like change.” She spoke to Keane without taking her gaze off the cat, not wanting to look into the dark, mesmerizing eyes that didn’t recognize her because if she did, she might be tempted to pick one of the tiaras displayed on her counter and hit him over the head with it.
“What’s her name?” she asked.
“Petunia, but I’m going with Pita. Short for pain in the…”
Willa stroked along the cat’s back and Petunia pressed into her hand for more. A low and rumbly purr filled the room and Petunia’s eyes slitted with pleasure.
Keane let out a breath as Willa continued to pet her. “Unbelievable,” he said. “You’re wearing catnip as perfume, right?”
Willa raised an eyebrow. “Is that the only reason you think she’d like me?”
Okay then. Willa opened her mouth to end this little game and tell him that she wasn’t doing this, but then she looked into Petunia’s deep-as-the-ocean blue eyes and felt her heart stir. Crap. “Fine,” she heard herself say. “If you can provide proof of Rabies and FVRCP vaccinations, I’ll take her for today only.”
“Thank you,” he said with such genuine feeling, she glanced up at him.
His dark eyes had warmed to the color of melted dark chocolate. “One question.”
“What?” she asked warily.
“Do you always wear X-rated headbands?”
Her hands flew to her head. She’d completely forgotten she was the penis headband. “Are you referring to my reindeer antlers?”
“Reindeer antlers,” he repeated.
“Whatever you say.” He was smiling now, and of course the ratfink bastard had a sexy as hell smile. And unbelievably her good parts stood up and took notice. Clearly her body hadn’t gotten the memo on the no-man thing. Especially not this man.
“My name’s Keane by the way,” he said. “Keane Winters.”
He paused, clearly expecting her to tell him her name in return, but she had a dilemma now. If she told him who she was and he suddenly recognized her, he’d also remember exactly how pathetic she’d once been. And if he didn’t recognize her then that meant she was even more forgettable than she’d thought and she’d have to throw the penis-headband at him after all.
“And you are…?” he asked, rich voice filled with amusement at her pause.
Well, hell. Now or never, she supposed. “Willa Davis,” she said and held her breath.
There was no change in his expression whatsoever. Forgettable then, and she grinded on her back teeth for a minute.
“I appreciate you doing this for me, Willa,” he said.
She had to consciously unclench her teeth to speak. “I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for Petunia,” she said, wanting to be crystal clear. “And you’ll need to be back here to pick her up before closing.”