Life had churned them up and spit them out at a young age, leaving them out there in the big, bad world all alone.
Since Willa had been one of those lost girls herself, she collected them. She gave them jobs and advice that they only listened to about half the time.
But she figured fifty percent was better than zero percent.
Her most recent hire was nineteen-year-old Lyndie, who was still a little feral but they were working on that. Then there was Cara, who’d come a long way. Rory had been with Willa the longest. The girl put up a strong front but she still struggled. Proof positive was the fading markings of a bruise on her jaw where her ex-boyfriend had knocked her into a doorjamb.
Just the thought had Willa clenching her fists. Sometimes at night she dreamed about what she’d like to do to the guy. High on the list was cutting off his twig and berries with a dull knife but she had an aversion to jail.
Rory deserved better. Tough as nails on the outside, she was a tender marshmallow on the inside, and she’d do anything for Willa. It was sweet, but also a huge responsibility because Rory looked to Willa for her normal.
A daunting prospect on the best of days.
She checked on Six and found the puppy finally fast asleep sprawled on his back, feet spread wide to show the world his most prized possessions.
Just like a man for you.
Next she checked on his siblings. Also asleep. Feeling like the mother of sextuplets, she tiptoed back out to the front and opened her laptop, planning to inventory the new boxes of supplies she’d received late the night before.
She’d just gotten knee-deep in four different twenty-five-pound sacks of bird feed—she still couldn’t believe how many people in San Francisco had birds—when someone knocked on the front glass door.
Damn. It was only a quarter after eight but it went against the grain to turn away a paying customer. Straightening, she swiped her hands on her apron and looked up.
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 “backward” 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.