“Little bit,” Spence said.
She didn’t look. She couldn’t; someone had glued her feet to the floor.
Finn topped off her drink and hugged her tight. “It’s not as bad you think.”
No. It was worse.
Elle leaned in. “Hey, guys like women who can take care of their own business.”
Archer appeared to choke on his own tongue.
Pru smacked both him and Finn upside the back of their heads and pulled Finn away. “Kitchen,” she said firmly.
Haley quickly stood. “I’ll go with you. Spence?”
“Yep.” Spence’s gaze slid past Willa for a beat and then he lowered his voice. “You let us love you, Willa. But maybe it’s time to expand your horizons beyond the core group, you know?”
“But you haven’t,” she said desperately.
“Trying and failing isn’t the same as not trying,” he said. And then he walked away, nodding at the man behind her.
Willa could feel Keane, but she wasn’t ready to look.
“Whatever you do,” Elle said quietly, “do it from your gut and take no prisoners.” She watched Spence walk away. “I’m going after him,” she said. “You know this is a rough time for him. Unless you need me to stay and kick ass and take names . . .?”
“I’ll be okay,” Willa said bravely.
The only one left, Archer set his beer down and looked at her. It was hard to take him seriously with the Santa hat. “Let me guess,” she said miserably. “Follow your heart or something Hallmark-y like that, right?”
This had Archer letting out a rare laugh. “Fuck, no.”
She let out a low laugh too in spite of the panic choking the air from her lungs. Of all her BFFs, Archer was the most closed off. King of his own island and no one had a set of the laws but him.
“I was going to say run like hell,” he said, “but Keane looks like he can catch you with no problem at all.” His smile faded and he ducked down a little. “But if you’ve changed your mind and don’t want to be caught, you give me the bat signal and I’m there, okay?”
She looked into the eyes of the man who would do anything, and she meant anything, to keep his friends safe. “Okay.”
And then she was alone in the bar with the only man who’d ever really snagged a piece of her heart. Slowly she turned and faced him.
He looked utterly exhausted. It must be raining again because his hair was wet, his long dark lashes spiky. He hadn’t shaved that morning. And probably not the morning before either.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She blinked. “For what?”
“A lot of things but let’s start with tonight. I wanted to be here earlier, I intended to be, but . . .” His eyes were dark, his expression was dark, and her heart immediately stopped.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, thinking please don’t let it be Sally . . .
“Pita’s gone again, but this time I think she got out of the house.”
She gasped. “What?”
“There were people going in and out all day and I was working in the attic and . . . shit.” He shoved a hand through his wet hair, leaving it standing on end. “I fucking lost her.”
“Why didn’t you call me sooner?”
“I did. You didn’t answer. I figured you were pissed that I hadn’t shown up. I came here to beg you for help—”
“I didn’t hear my phone—” She slapped her pockets. Empty. She turned in a slow circle looking for her purse, which she’d left on the bar unattended. She ran over there and pulled out her phone and saw the missed calls. “I’m so sorry.” She headed for the door. “Let’s go.”
Keane drove them to Vallejo Street, his mind filled with worry about Pita but still having enough room to enjoy the way Willa looked tonight, which was smokin’ hot. “I’m sorry about taking you away from your Christmas party.” He slid her a lingering look. “I like the dress.”
She looked down at her little red dress. Emphasis on little. “I wore it for you.”
He felt a knot loosen in his chest and met her deep green gaze. “The invite. Was that just to the party? Or into your life?”
She nibbled on her lower lip but held his eyes prisoner. “Both,” she said.
The rest of the knots fell away as he pulled up in front of his house. Rain pelted the truck as he turned to her, one hand on the steering wheel, the other going to the nape of her neck.
She leaned across the console and kissed him, short but not sweet. “Petunia first,” she said quietly. “The rest later. We have time.”
He cupped her jaw, his thumb stroking her soft skin. “I like the sound of that,” he said. “I’ll go check with the neighbors. See if anyone saw her.”
“Can I use your office to make some posters?” she asked and, if he wasn’t mistaken, shivered while she was at it.
“Posters?” he repeated in question, peeling out of his sweatshirt and pulling it over her head.
“Missing Cat posters.” She hugged his sweatshirt to herself, inhaling deeply as if she liked his scent.
He reached into his pocket and held out the key he’d tried to give her the other day. He smiled. “You’re going to need this to get inside.”
Her fingers closed over his and their gazes met and held. “Thanks,” she said. “For the key and the patience.” Then she was gone, running up the steps, letting herself inside the house.
He watched her go and then grabbed his spare jacket from the backseat. A minute later he was going up and down the street asking about Pita while the woman he was pretty sure had just agreed to be his gave up her Christmas Eve helping him, simply because he’d asked.
Half an hour later, he had to admit defeat. No one had seen or heard the cat.
The streets were quiet, traffic was low to nonexistent, but that was because of the storm. Earlier, during rush hour, there’d been heavy traffic. For all he knew, Pita had gotten scared and run off, and then ended up lost. Or she’d been taken by someone.
Or worse, hit by a car.
He stood under a tree whose roots had cracked the sidewalk, only half protected from the rain, wet as hell, trying to figure out how he was going to ever face his aunt again when his phone vibrated.