She turned to the door and then stopped. Still facing the door, she said, “And I know that’s Sally’s cat. You’re helping her too.”
“She’s family,” he said and then he lied out his ass. “And the cat’s no problem.”
“You’re doing more than just taking care of her cat,” his mom said. “Sally called me yesterday and told me everything.”
Keane let out a low breath. “Then you know that me helping her is the least I can do.”
She didn’t say anything for a long beat, did nothing but take a small sniff that struck terror in his heart.
Was she . . . crying? He’d never seen her lose it and truthfully, he’d rather someone ripped out his fingernails one by one than see it now. “Mom—”
“I’m fine.” She sniffed again and then still talking to the door softly said, “I was the teacher, for twenty-five years. But sometimes you teach me things I didn’t expect.”
He stared at her, stunned.
“Well,” she said with a nod. “I’m off. I’ll call you, keep you updated.”
“You don’t have to—”
“I’ll call you,” she repeated and he realized that she was trying, in the only way she knew how, to stay in his life.
“That would be nice,” he said. “I’ll call you too, okay?”
Her voice was soft and there was an unmistakable sense of relief in her voice. “Okay.”
And then she was gone.
He turned and caught the flash of someone ducking behind a doorway. A petite, insatiably curious redheaded someone. Slowly she peeked back out and winced when her eyes locked on him.
She was cautious of getting in too deep with him and besides the fact that he’d come right out and told her he didn’t do deep, she was right to be wary. Giving in to this thing between them would be insanity, and having his mother remind him of the way he was wired, how the entire family was wired—with an utter lack of the giving-someone-your-heart gene—had been a wake-up call. Willa was dodging a bullet here and she didn’t even know it.
“You okay?” she asked quietly.
Was he? He had no idea, not that he was about to admit it. “Yeah.” He thought maybe he could see some pity in her gaze and he pretty much hated everything about that so he gave a vague wave at the place around him. “I’ve really got to get to work.”
She nodded, but didn’t move. Instead she clasped her hands tight together and held his gaze. “I wanted to explain my abrupt departure this morning. It’s just that when I woke up wrapped around you like one of those amazingly delicious warm pretzels at AT&T Park, I . . .”
“No,” she said. “Well, okay, yes, but only for a few minutes. I don’t regret last night, Keane. I just wanted you to know that. I’m sorry—”
“Willa, stop,” he said, interrupting her. Both this morning with her on top of the visit with his mom had left him feeling a little hollow and far too raw to deal with any more heavy emotions. “Forget it, okay? It was nothing.”
She looked a little stunned at that and it took him a second to realize she thought he was saying what they’d shared was nothing. “Not what I meant,” he said, but since he didn’t know what he did mean, he fell silent.
She nodded like she knew though, which he was glad about. Someone should know what the fuck was going on here. His tool belt was lying on one of the sawhorses and he put it on, hopefully signaling he was good with no further conversation.
She took a deep breath. “If this is about me hearing that conversation with your mom—”
“Because it’s not your fault how she treats you,” she said.
“Yes, it is. I was a rotten kid, Willa. I was,” he said firmly when she opened her mouth. “I get that some of it was because I didn’t get a lot of positive attention, but that’s no excuse.”
She was arms crossed now, defensive for him, clearly not willing to believe the worst of him, all of which did something painful and also a little wonderful inside his chest.
“What could you possibly have done that was so bad?”
“For one, I was a complete shit. Even after I graduated high school. They gave me tuition money to complement a partial football scholarship for two years, until I got injured and blew the scholarship. I hated every second of school, by the way. So when they gave me tuition for year three, I quit and used the money for the down payment for my first renovation project.”
“I take it they didn’t approve.”
“I didn’t tell them for several years,” he admitted.
Her eyes widened.
“See?” he asked. “A complete shit. I paid them back with interest, but the point is that as a result of my own actions, they don’t trust me very much.”
“Not everyone is made for the academic life.”
He shook his head. “Don’t make excuses for me, Willa.”
“Well someone has to give you a break,” she said, tossing up her hands. “You’ve worked pretty hard to help your aunt and your family. You’ve worked hard to make something of yourself and—” She broke off and looked at him as if she’d never seen him before.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. “I just realized something. I accused you of not being able to attach. But clearly you can, and deeply.”
He started to shake his head but stopped because given his growing attachment to her, not to mention some extraordinarily deep emotions on the same subject, she was right.
“And not only can you obviously love and love deeply,” she said slowly, putting a hand to her chest like it hurt. “You can even hold on to it. Maybe even better than me. Hell, definitely better than me.”
His chest got tight at the thought of her believing that about herself. “Willa—”
“I know, right? Not a super comfortable feeling.” She paused when from inside his pocket, his phone went off.
It’d been doing so for the past half hour. Subcontractors, clients . . . probably Sass as well. And even as he thought it, a well-dressed couple parked out front.
Clients with whom he had a meeting with in . . . he looked at his watch. Shit. Right now.
“The real world calls,” Willa said and took a step back.