“Hey, that wasn’t my bad last time,” Spence said. “I’m not the one who’s dairy intolerant.”
“Well excuse me,” Finn grumbled. “How was I supposed to know the smoothie Pru bought me that night was milk based?”
“He hasn’t had any dairy today,” Pru told Elle. “He’s dairy free.”
“You don’t have to stay,” Willa repeated.
Archer shook his head. They were staying. “Until you tell us you’re good,” he said, and just like that it became law. “Wave when you’re ready for the tree and we’ll bring it up.”
Okay, then. Willa ran up the steps and knocked. She wasn’t sure what she expected but when Keane opened the door, she lost her tongue.
She could tell he was surprised too. His gaze tracked past her to the truck at the curb—and the five faces there, pressed up against a fogged-up window, watching.
“Don’t mind them,” she said. “There was nothing good on TV tonight.”
He almost smiled at that, she could tell. Tucked under one arm like a football was Petunia, lounging against his strong forearm like she’d been born to do so.
Keane wore only a T-shirt and sweat pants. No shoes. Hair looking like maybe he’d shoved his fingers through it. He seemed tired, wary, and distinctly not happy.
“How long are they going to stay out there?” he asked.
“Until I get my life together.” She pulled the door from his grasp and shut it on her friends’ collective faces.
“Do they know that might take a while?” Keane asked wryly.
She let out a low laugh and turned to face him, eyes on his face. “You love me?” she asked softly.
“So you did hear me.” He took her hand with his free one and led her to the kitchen. He set the cat down on the floor near her bowl, and true to form, she waddled over to it and stuck her head into the thing like she’d been starved for the past five weeks.
Keane rolled his eyes, grabbed a clean dish towel, and turned back to Willa, running it over her dripping hair. “You’re frozen through,” he said, standing close, very close, affecting her breathing. He met her gaze and held it as he dried her off. “You need a hot shower and—”
She wrapped her fingers around his wrists and stilled his movements. “You love me.”
He tossed the towel aside and cupped her face. “From the moment you let me into South Bark that first morning and gave me ’tude.” He gave a little smile. “And then changed my life with your easy affection, huge heart, and the world’s best smile.”
“Oh,” she breathed, completely undone. Her eyes filled and she snapped her mouth shut for a minute, swallowing hard. “I love you too, Keane.” Oh God. She’d never said those words out loud before. She had to bend over for a second, hands on her knees, fighting the sudden dizziness.
Two strong hands lifted her. When she met his gaze, he was smiling a little. “How much did that hurt?” he asked.
She let out a breath. “Not nearly as much as this—I’m sorry I ran off like that. It was just like when you tried to give me your key, I . . . panicked.”
“And then I blamed you for holding back, but it was all me. I let you in and I fell hard. And then suddenly it was like that bad nightmare of going to school naked. I got scared.”
“I know. Come here, Willa.” And then instead of waiting for her to do so, he pulled her into his arms. “Are you scared now?”
“No,” she said, holding on tight.
“Then have some faith in me to not hurt you.”
“I’ve always have faith in you,” she said. “It was the faith in me that took a while.”
“This isn’t all on you, Willa,” he said. “It’s on me too. I should’ve told you about putting the house up for sale. I should’ve told you about the offers that poured in. But the truth is that you were right all along. I didn’t really want to sell.”
She stilled and lifted her head to see his face. “So why are you?”
“I’m not.” He shook his head. “I rescinded my acceptance of the offer.”
She just stared up at him. “Because . . .?”
“Because this house is no longer just a house to me,” he said. “It’s my home. And I want it to be yours too.” He cupped her face and pressed his forehead to hers. “I’m hoping you want that too. Think you can handle it?”
She slipped her arms around his waist. “There’s this incredible man I know. He let me watch him learn that being emotionally closed off didn’t work, that it’s worth the risk to let someone in.”
He smiled. “He sounds smart as hell. Probably he’s sexy as hell too, right?”
She laughed and pressed even closer, unable to believe this was really happening. “So damn sexy.”
He looked deep into her eyes and let his smile fade. “I love you, Willa. I’ve spent years risking everything for my business, over and over. It’s past time to risk my heart for you.”
“Does risking that heart include letting me put up a tree?”
“It’s a little late for that, I think.”
“Actually, it’s not.” She ran to the front door. Yep, everyone was still curbside in Archer’s truck. She waved.
Archer and Spence got out of the car, untied the tree from the truck bed and carried it up the front steps.
“Tree delivery service,” Spence quipped. “Where do you want it?”
Keane looked at Willa. “Wherever she wants.”
“Good answer,” Archer murmured as they carted the tree in.
They deposited it in the large front living room. Spence walked out the front door first, Archer behind him. He turned and looked at Willa. “You good?”
She beamed at him.
“Yeah,” he said with a barely there smile. “You’re good.”
And then they were gone.
Keane rubbed a hand over his jaw, staring at the tree, which was only slightly crooked. The topper was Archer’s Santa hat.
“The holidays are going to be insane, aren’t they?” he asked.
She smiled from the bottom of her heart and took his hand. “Yeah. Scared?”