“Not even a little bit,” she said in a tone that he’d heard before, the same tone that again suggested he should know what the hell she was talking about.
“Okay,” he said. “I cave. I want to buy a vowel.”
She glanced over her shoulder at Elle, who lifted a shoulder. “Give him hell, honey,” she said and hopped off the counter, leaving out the courtyard-side door.
Keane didn’t have time for this. “What am I missing?” he asked, determined to figure out why she’d twice now referred to a past. And suddenly an odd and uncomfortable thought came to him. “Do we know each other or something?”
“Why?” she asked, eyes suddenly sharp. “Do you remember me from somewhere?”
Willa stared at him for a long beat and then shook her head. “No, we don’t know each other. At all. And to be clear,” she added, those brilliant eyes narrowed now, “I liked you better as a carpenter.” With that, she took Pita from him and walked away.
At two minutes past six that evening, Keane flung his truck into park and jogged in the pouring rain across the street to South Bark.
The front door was locked, lights off—except for the strings and strings and strings of Christmas lights wound through the inside of the shop, making it look like the North Pole at Christmastime.
The sign read closed but there was a piece of paper attached to it that said:
Unless you’re an extremely rude person who’s late in picking up their precious bundle of love, use the back door.
Gee, he thought dryly, who could she possibly be referring to . . .? He strode through the courtyard and entered the back door to South Bark to find Willa up to her elbows in suds, bathing a huge Doberman.
“Who’s a good boy,” Willa was saying to the dog in a light, silly voice that had the dog panting happily into her face. “That’s right,” she cooed, “you are, aren’t you? Aren’t you a good boy?”
“Well I don’t like to brag,” Keane said, leaning against the doorjamb. “But I do have my moments.”
She jerked and whirled around to face him. “I didn’t hear you come in.” She looked him over. “You changed.”
He looked down at his jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt. “I ended up working on some electrical for a good part of the day until the storm hit,” he said. “I didn’t want to accidentally electrocute myself in a suit and make things easy for the undertaker.”
She didn’t smile. “You were working on electricity in these conditions?”
“The job doesn’t always wait for good weather. And no worries, I haven’t accidentally electrocuted myself in years.”
She didn’t respond to this but drained the tub and wrapped Carl in a huge towel. She attached his lead to a stand. “Give me a second,” she said to Keane and vanished into the hallway.
She didn’t go far because he heard her say, “Need a favor, can you finish up with Carl for me?”
“Depends.” Rory’s voice. “Is his owner here?”
“Max?” Willa asked. “No, he’s with Archer on a job but he’ll be here soon to pick up Carl, who just needs to be dried and combed through. Why? Is there a problem with Max?”
“No,” Rory said quickly. Too quickly. “Fine,” she said on a sigh. “I can’t stop thinking about him.”
“And I can’t stop thinking about grilled cheese,” Willa said.
Rory laughed. “That would be a lot easier.” She paused. “He asked me out again.”
“I see,” Willa said, her voice softer now. “Honey, he’s one of the good guys. Archer wouldn’t have him on his team otherwise.”
“My radar’s still broken.”
“Well, I get that,” Willa said commiseratively and then the two of them walked back into the room.
Rory rolled up her sleeves. “I’ve got this.” She smiled at Carl. “And you’re a far better date than the marathon of American Horror Story I was planning anyway.” She kissed the dog right between the huge, pointy ears.
Carl licked her face from chin to forehead, making the girl laugh.
Willa gestured for Keane to follow her down that hallway to what looked to be her office.
Pita was sprawled on her back across a wood desk, all four legs sticking straight up in the air like she’d been dead and stiff for days.
Keane stopped short in shock.
Not Willa. She laughed and moved to the desk to tickle Pita’s belly.
The cat yawned wide and stretched, rubbing her face up against Willa’s wrist, and a ridiculous sense of relief came to Keane.
He didn’t have to call Sally and tell her that Pita was dead. At least not tonight.
“Daddy’s come to pick you up,” Willa said, nuzzling the cat.
“Funny,” Keane said and noticed the empty fishbowl next to Pita. “Were you fish sitting again?”
“Was,” she said and let out a slow, sad breath. “I’ve been letting Petunia have the run of the place because she’s so sweet and the customers love her, but I turned my head for a few minutes to assist Rory with some grooming and . . .” She swallowed hard. “I think Petunia was hungry.”
His heart stopped. “Jesus. Are you kidding me?”
He blinked at her. “What?”
“Yes, I’m kidding you.”
He just stared at her. “That was mean.”
“Don’t be late again,” she said, but damn if her smug smile wasn’t lighting up his rough day like nothing else had. How she managed to do that while irritating the shit out of him at the same time was anyone’s guess. “I’m sorry I was late, I’ll pay late fees.”
Willa shook her head. “It was only a few minutes and you were working on electricity. I wouldn’t have wanted you to rush and get zapped.”
“Aw,” he said. “More proof that you do care about me.”
“I care about the paycheck.”
He laughed. “Duly noted.” He knew he should get Pita and leave. He was starving, he still had paperwork to tackle, and certainly she had things to do too, but he didn’t make a move to go.
They were still staring at each other when a woman stuck her head in the office. Keane recognized her as Kylie, one of the woodworkers who ran Reclaimed Woods, a shop across the courtyard that created gorgeous homemade furnishings. He’d bought several things from her in the past year. He smiled in greeting as he realized she had a very tiny dog’s head peeking out the breast pocket of her denim jacket.