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?”
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.
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 Willa. “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.