Archer exchanged a long look with the other men. “Taken care of,” he finally said.
“Take care of how?” he wanted to know. “She shouldn’t have to deal with him. I want to make sure she doesn’t have to.”
“She won’t,” Archer said grimly. “He won’t contact her again.”
Keane waited for a better explanation, but apparently Archer didn’t feel the need to explain himself.
Elle shook her head at Archer and turned to Keane. “Good morning, by the way. And this is Joe,” she said of the guy all weaponed up. “He’s Archer’s second in command. And Max,” she said of the younger guy. “And this handsome four-legged guy”—she patted the huge dog on the head—“is Carl. And what Archer meant to say is that he and Max got Ethan. And because he had a warrant out for his arrest for being rough with other women and also stealing from them as well, they put his pansy ass in jail.”
Keane’s jaw was so tight he could barely speak. “When?”
“About an hour after she sent me the text last night,” Archer said.
Elle smiled a little tightly but her eyes were warm. “As you know, Willa is incredibly special, to all of us. We’ve got her back.” She paused. “And it’s nice to know that you do as well. Isn’t it, Archer?”
Archer slid her a look. She gave him one back, prompting him to blow out a sigh. “Yeah,” he said and then his eyes hardened again. “Don’t fuck it up. Don’t fuck her up.”
“Okay then,” Elle said cheerfully. “Moving on. Welcome to the gang, Keane. You’re one of us now, right, Archer?”
“As long as he doesn’t fuck it up,” Archer repeated.
Keane held the guy’s gaze and gave a short nod. He wouldn’t fuck it up. He couldn’t.
Because he already had.
Back outside on the sidewalk, he stood in the early-morning dawn, a thick layer of fog casting everything in blues and grays. The lights were on inside Willa’s shop, though the sign on the door said closed.
He could see in the windows, see movement past the bright string of holiday lights and boughs of holly. Willa was there.
In another man’s arms.
Willa had slept like crap. She wanted to blame it on the sheer amount of food she’d inhaled at dinner last night with Keane but even she, a woman who knew the value of putting her head in the sand once in a while, couldn’t fool herself.
It hadn’t been dinner. It was Keane: his smile, his eyes.
His kiss . . .
It was also the sombering certainty that he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—get any more attached to her than he had anything else in his life. Not his family, his work, Petunia . . .
And certainly not her.
She rolled out of bed and showered and since she’d run out of coffee, skipped makeup. No need to risk poking out an eye with a mascara wand when she had only major catastrophic medical insurance.
She ran down the four flights of stairs and called it exercise, entering her shop with three minutes to spare before a longtime client showed up. Carrie had standing reservations for one-day-a-week babysitting services for Luna, her new teacup piglet, and Macaroni, her “baby,” a.k.a. sixty-five-pound, sweet-as-pie pit bull.
Thirteen-year-old Macaroni had arthritis, no teeth, questionable bowel control, and hip dysplasia, but he was pure heart. So much so that Carrie hadn’t been able to put him down as her family had been gently suggesting.
Macaroni loved Willa and the feeling was mutual. He was a lot of work but he was absolutely the highlight of her week.
Except Carrie didn’t show up. Figuring she was just running late, Willa began working on setting up the Santa Extravaganza Photo Booth for the upcoming weekend. She lost track of time until Spence appeared with two coffees in hand looking unaccustomedly solemn.
Spence was the brain of their gang. Quiet but not even remotely shy, he’d been recruited for a government think tank right from college—which he’d finished with a mechanical engineering degree at age eighteen. He’d never said much about that job but he’d hated it. A few years later he and some of his coworkers had gone to work for themselves. Last year they’d sold their start-up and struck gold. Willa had no idea if he’d gotten a penny or a million bucks; he never talked about it.
Since then he hadn’t found his next thing. They all knew he was unhappy and hated that for him, but if Spence didn’t want to talk, Spence didn’t talk. He’d been keeping busy with a variety of things and one of them was that he showed up at her shop several times a week to handle her pet-walking duties for her, which she loved. Nothing like a sexy geek to help increase business.
In fact, he was closer to Carrie and her pets than Willa since Carrie was dating one of Spence’s ex-partners. “Come in,” Willa called out to him. “Macaroni isn’t here yet.”
“I know.” Spence came closer, set down the two coffees, and reached for her hand. “Honey, Macaroni passed away this morning.”
Willa felt her heart stop, just stop. “Oh no,” she breathed and pressed a hand to her chest, not that it alleviated any pain. “How?”
“In his sleep. No pain,” he said softly and pulled her in just as she burst into tears.
A few minutes later, thankful she hadn’t bothered with mascara after all, she shuddered out a sigh, still within the warm safety of Spence’s arms. Damn, crying was exhausting. She needed to get it together and call Carrie to see how she could help. She needed to get to work. She needed to do a lot of things. That’s when her gaze fell to the window and the man standing on the corner outside, his eyes locked on her.
In the next beat, the shop door opened and there he was, bigger than life, looking a little tense, a frown on his lips, his eyes on Spence’s arms still around her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“A client’s dog passed away this morning,” Spence told him. “Willa and Macaroni were really tight.”
Was it her imagination or did he relax slightly?
“Aw, hell,” he said, voice warm and genuine now. “That sucks.”
“Yeah.” Spence ruffled Willa’s hair. “It does.”
Willa took some tissues from the box on her counter and mopped herself up, aware of Keane watching her. He’d been thrown by finding her in Spence’s arms but he’d recovered quick, which was a point in his favor, she could admit. He’d also been running. He was in black basketball shorts, with compression shorts peeking out beneath, and a long-sleeve dry-fit shirt that clung to his broad shoulders and chest, revealing every line of sinew on him.