“Petunia,” Sally called softly, her voice cracking with age. “Baby, come to Mama.”
Petunia immediately lifted her head with a surprised chirp. She leapt with grace to the counter and jogged straight to Sally, right into the woman’s open arms.
Sally bent her head low, and cat and woman had a long moment together, the only sounds being the raspy purr from Petunia and the soft murmurs from Sally. “I have to go, Petunia,” she whispered softly. “You might not see me for a while. You be a good girl for Keane, okay? He’s male so he might not know much, but he’s got a big heart, even if he doesn’t know that either.”
Willa’s heart squeezed hard. She turned to Keane with worry and he gave her a very small smile, reaching for her hand. She gently squeezed his fingers.
His eyes were warm as they slid over her features. Warm and grateful, she realized. Because she’d taken good care of Petunia? Or that she’d been kind to his aunt? Or maybe it was simply because she was there.
Sally lifted her head. Her eyes were dry but devastated as she turned away. “I need a ride back now,” she said and snapped her fingers in the air.
Keane smiled grimly at Willa. “I’ve been summoned.” Leaning down, he brushed a kiss across her mouth before looking into her eyes.
For what she had no idea. But wanting to give comfort however she could, she pressed into him and felt him let out a low breath, like maybe he was relaxing for the first time all day.
Pulling back, he kissed her once more, and then he was gone.
Keane was good at burying emotions, real good. He was also good at compartmentalizing. But when he’d walked Sally inside her rehab center and she’d hugged him, whispering, “Be better than the rest of the family,” and then patted his cheek and walked away, he’d had a funny feeling that he couldn’t place.
That evening, just as he was leaving work to pick up Pita, his architect and engineer showed up for an impromptu meeting on the Mission job. Worried about making Willa work late, he quickly called South Bark. Willa was with a customer but Rory told him no worries, they’d take care of Petunia as late as he needed. Someone would just take her home if need be.
Relieved, he went into his meeting and when it was over an hour later, he realized with a hit to his solar plexus what the niggling feeling about Sally had been.
She’d been trying to tell him goodbye.
He left the jobsite and stopped to see his aunt on his way to South Bark—only to be told that Sally had been taken to the hospital.
When he got there, they wouldn’t tell him a damn thing because she hadn’t listed any contacts. Luckily Keane knew the nurse and in spite of the fact that they’d slept together twice before he’d backed off when he’d seen wedding bells and white picket fences in her pretty eyes, Jenny seemed genuinely happy to see him. They exchanged pleasantries and then he asked about Sally.
She shook her head. “I can’t tell you anything about her condition—I could lose my job for that. You’re hot, Keane, and great in bed . . .” She smiled. “Really, really great, but even I have my limits.”
She did, however, let him sit in Sally’s room.
Exhausted, he stretched out his legs and leaned his head back. He was half asleep when his aunt’s cranky voice came from the bed. “You paid my rehab center bill.”
And he’d pay her hospital bill too, if she needed. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“Worrying is what I do.”
“Just get better.”
“Huh,” she said. “Is that out of concern for me or concern for you that you might get stuck with Petunia?”
She cackled at that. “I might have to write you into my will.”
He found a smile. “Look at you being all sweet. I knew you had it in you, deep, deep down.”
“Just don’t tell anyone,” she said. “They’ll think I have no chill.”
He blinked. “What?”
“It’s a term used when you act specifically uncool about something.”
He laughed. “I know what it means, I’m just wondering how you know.”
Sally shrugged. “My nurse keeps saying it about the doctors. Now stop stalling and explain to me what the hell you’re doing here. I know I didn’t have anyone call you.”
He shook his head. “And why is that?” he asked, apparently still butt-hurt over it.
She closed her eyes. “You should be home with your girl right now.”
Keane scrubbed a hand over his face. “Willa’s not mine.”
“Spoken just like a man who’s never had to work for a woman in his life.”
This wrenched another laugh from him. He stared at his clenched hands and then lifted his head. “I want to know what’s going on with you. I want you to put me on as your next of kin and contact, and I’d like to have your power of attorney as well.”
“Circling the inheritance already?”
“I want to be able to make sure you’re being cared for,” he said.
She stared at him, her rheumy eyes fierce and proud and stubborn as . . . well, as he imagined his own were. Finally, she blew out a rough breath. “I lived the past three extra decades without any family at all.”
“Yeah and how has that worked out for you?” he asked.
She huffed and leaned back, closing her eyes. “It doesn’t matter now. What matters is that you go.”
Her mouth went tight, her eyes stayed tightly closed.
He blew out a sigh. “Aunt Sally—”
“I’m dying,” she said flatly.
He stopped breathing. “No.” He stood up and moved to her bedside, covering her hand with his. “No,” he said again.
She looked up at him. “You can stand as tall as a tree and scowl down at me all you want. I’m eighty-five years old. It’s going to be God’s truth.”
“Only if you keep drilling me.”
He let out a low laugh and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Christ.”
“Look, I could choke on my Metamucil tomorrow morning and go toes up just like that, you never know.”