At the fountain, a woman was searching her pockets for something. She was early twenties and looked distressed as she whirled around, eyes narrowed.
He realized it was Haley, Willa’s optometrist friend.
“Lose something?” he asked.
“No. Well, yes,” she corrected. “I wanted to make a stupid wish on the stupid legend but I can’t find any stupid coins . . .” She sat on the stone ledge and pulled off her shoe, shaking it. When nothing came out, she sighed. “Damn. I always have a least a penny in there.”
He pulled a quarter from his pocket. “Here.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t—”
“Take it,” he said, dropping it in her hand. “For your ‘stupid’ wish on the ‘stupid’ legend.”
She laughed. “You’re making fun but it really is stupid. And yet here I am . . .” She tossed up her hands. “It’s just that it worked for Pru and it appears to have worked for Willa.” She gave him a long look making him realize she meant him.
He shook his head. “We’re not—”
“Oh no.” She pointed at him. “Don’t ruin my hope! I mean it’s Willa. She pours herself into taking care of everyone, the kids she employs, the animals, her friends.” She smiled a little. “Well I don’t have to tell you; you know firsthand.”
He absolutely did. Willa had taken on Pita for him when she had less than zero reason to like him. She’d taken him on as a friend when he wasn’t sure he deserved it.
“She deserves love,” Haley said. “She gives one hundred percent to everyone and everything but herself so we all knew it was going to be something big when she fell. Someone who really knocked her off her feet.” She smiled. “You’ve got the big down anyway.”
“I’m not sure it’s what you think,” he said quietly.
“Yeah, well, nothing ever is.” She turned back to the water. “If you’ll excuse me.”
“Sure,” he said and left her to her privacy.
The pub was packed. Lights twinkled above all the laughter and voices and “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” was busting out of hidden speakers.
And speaking of Santa, he was sitting at the bar calm as you please, tossing back a shot of something.
Keane made his way to the far right end of the bar, where Willa sat with Elle, Spence, and Archer. There was a row of empty glasses and a pitcher of eggnog in front of them. Elle and Spence were deep in discussion about Spence’s workout routine.
“You have to eat healthy more than once to get in shape,” he said to Elle.
“Cruel and unfair,” she answered and jabbed a finger at Archer, who was shoving some chili fries into his mouth. “Then explain him.”
Archer swiveled his gaze Elle’s way and swallowed a huge bite. “What?”
Elle made a noise of disgust. “You eat like you’re afraid it’s going out of style and yet you never gain a single ounce of fat.”
Archer gave a slow smile. “Genetics, babe. I was born this way.”
Elle rolled her eyes so hard that Keane was surprised they didn’t fall right out of her head. Shifting past all of them, he headed toward Willa. No longer in sweats, she wore a black skirt, tights, boots, and the brightest red Christmas sweater he’d ever seen. Her gaze was glued to Santa in the middle of the bar and Keane would’ve sworn she was twitching. He purposely maneuvered to block her view of the guy. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Her smile didn’t quite meet her eyes. “Be right back,” she said and, slipping off her stool, headed into the back.
Keane looked at Elle, who was also watching Willa go, her eyes solemn and concerned. “I know she’s not a Santa fan,” he said. “But what am I missing?”
“A lot,” Elle said but didn’t further enlighten him.
And he knew she wouldn’t. Elle could keep state secrets safe. He looked at Spence, who seemed sympathetic but he shook his head. Archer might as well have been a brick wall, so Keane turned to Haley, who’d just come in, apparently having made her wish.
“Tell me,” he said.
“Her mom dated a drunk Santa who chased her around the house wanting her to sit on his lap. Back then they called it funny for a grown-ass man to terrorize a little girl.”
“And now they call it a fucking felony,” Keane said grimly.
Elle and Archer both turned to look at him with a new appraisal—and approval—in their gazes. But they still weren’t talking.
And he got that. Good friends stood at each other’s backs unfailingly. He was grateful Willa had that. After how her childhood had gone, she needed that.
But he wanted in her inner circle and he wanted that shockingly badly. He made his way down the bar. “Hey,” he said, tapping Santa on the shoulder.
Santa turned to face him with the slow care of the very inebriated. “Whadda want?”
“There’s free drinks down on Second Street for Santas,” Keane said.
The guy’s eyes brightened. “Yeah?” He got to his feet, weaving a little. “Thanks, man.”
When Santa headed for the door, Keane followed the path Willa had taken. The hallway ended at the kitchen. There were a couple of other doors as well. Offices, he assumed. The bathroom door was shut so he waited there, holding up the wall and contemplating the utter silence on the other side of the door. After another few minutes went by, he pushed off the wall and knocked. “Willa.”
It wasn’t the first time today that one of the females in his life has refused to speak to him but something didn’t feel right. “I’m coming in,” he warned and opened the door.
The bathroom had two stalls, a sink, and was pleasantly clean.
The window was wide open to the night, the cold air rushing in.
She’d gone out the window.
He strode across the room and stuck his head and shoulders out, taking in the corner of the courtyard and the fire escape only a few feet away. Craning his neck, he looked up and saw a quick glimpse of a slim foot as it vanished over the edge of the roof.
Five stories up.
“Shit,” he said, his vision wavering. “Why is it always something high up?” Muttering some more, he pushed himself through the window, bashing his shoulders against the casing as he squeezed through. Squeeze being the operative word.