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The Trouble with Mistletoe

Jill Shalvis

  Chapter 1


  The sun had barely come up and Willa Davis was already elbow deep in puppies and poo—a typical day for her. As owner of the South Bark Mutt Shop, she spent much of her time scrubbing, cajoling, primping, hoisting—and more cajoling. She wasn’t above bribing either.

  Which meant she kept pet treats in her pockets, making her irresistible to any and all four-legged creatures within scent range. A shame though that a treat hadn’t yet been invented to make her irresistible to two-legged male creatures as well. Now that would’ve been handy.

  But then again, she’d put herself on a Man-Time-Out so she didn’t need such a thing.


  This from one of the pups she was bathing. The little guy wobbled in close and licked her chin.

  “That’s not going to butter me up,” she said, but it totally did and unable to resist that face she returned the kiss on the top of his cute little nose.

  One of Willa’s regular grooming clients had brought in her eight-week-old heathens—er, golden retriever puppies.

  Six of them.

  It was over an hour before the shop would open at nine a.m. but her client had called in a panic because the pups had rolled in horse poo. God knew where they’d found horse poo in the Cow Hollow district of San Francisco—maybe a policeman’s horse had left an undignified pile in the street—but they were a mess.

  And now so was Willa.

  Two puppies, even three, were manageable, but handling six by herself bordered on insanity. “Okay, listen up,” she said to the squirming, happily panting puppies in the large tub in her grooming room. “Everyone sit.”

  One and Two sat. Three climbed up on top of the both of them and shook his tubby little body, drenching Willa in the process.

  Meanwhile, Four, Five, and Six made a break for it, paws pumping, ears flopping over their eyes, tails wagging wildly as they scrabbled, climbing over each other like circus tumblers to get out of the tub.

  “Rory?” Willa called out. “Could use another set of hands back here.” Or three . . .

  No answer. Either her twenty-three-year-old employee had her headphones cranked up to make-me-deaf-please or she was on Instagram and didn’t want to lose her place. “Rory!”

  The girl finally poked her head around the corner, phone in hand, screen lit.

  Yep. Instagram.

  “Holy crap,” Rory said, eyes wide. “Literally.”

  Willa looked down at herself. Yep, her apron and clothes were splattered with suds and water and a few other questionable stains that might or might not be related to the horse poo. She’d lay money down on the fact that her layered strawberry blonde hair had rioted, resembling an explosion in a down-pillow factory. Good thing she’d forgone makeup at the early emergency call so at least she didn’t have mascara running down her face. “Help.”

  Rory cheerfully dug right in, not shying from getting wet or dirty. Dividing and conquering, they got all the pups out of the tub, dried, and back in their baby pen in twenty minutes. One through Five fell into the instant slumber that only babies and the very drunk could achieve, but Six remained stubbornly awake, climbing over his siblings determined to get back into Willa’s arms.

  Laughing, she scooped the little guy up. His legs bicycled in the air, tail wagging faster than the speed of light, taking his entire hind end with it.

  “Not sleepy, huh?” Willa asked.

  He strained toward her, clearly wanting to lick her face.

  “Oh no you don’t. I know where that tongue’s been.” Tucking him under her arm, she carted him out front to the retail portion of her shop, setting him into another baby pen with some puppy toys, one that was visible to street traffic. “Now sit there and look pretty and bring in some customers, would you?”

  Panting with happiness, the puppy pounced on a toy and got busy playing as Willa went through her opening routine, flipping on the lights throughout the retail area. The shop came to life, mostly thanks to the insane amount of holiday decorations she’d put up the week before, including the seven-foot tree in the front corner—lit to within an inch of its life.

  “It’s only the first of December and it looks like Christmas threw up in here,” Rory said from the doorway.

  Willa looked around at her dream-come-true shop, the one finally operating in the black. Well, most of the time. “But in a classy way, right?”

  Rory eyed the one hundred miles of strung lights and more boughs of holly than even the North Pole should have. “Um . . . right.”

  Willa ignored the doubtful sarcasm. One, Rory hadn’t grown up in a stable home. And two, neither had she. For the both of them Christmas had always been a luxury that, like three squares and a roof, had been out of their reach more than not. They’d each dealt with that differently. Rory didn’t need the pomp and circumstance of the holidays.

  Willa did, desperately. So yeah, she was twenty-seven years old and still went overboard for the holidays.

  “Ohmigod,” Rory said, staring at their newest cash register display. “Is that a rack of penis headbands?”

  “No!” Willa laughed. “It’s reindeer-antler headbands for dogs.”

  Rory stared at her.

  Willa grimaced. “Okay, so maybe I went a little crazy—”

  “A little?”

  “Ha-ha,” Willa said, picking up a reindeer-antler headband. It didn’t look like a penis to her, but then again it’d been a while since she’d seen one up close and personal. “These are going to sell like hotcakes, mark my words.”

  “Ohmigod—don’t put it on!” Rory said in sheer horror as Willa did just that.

  “It’s called marketing.” Willa rolled her eyes upward to take in the antlers jutting up above her head. “Shit.”

  Rory grinned and pointed to the swear jar that Willa had set up to keep them all in line. Mostly her, actually. They used the gained cash for their muffins and coffee fix.

  Willa slapped a dollar into it. “I guess the antlers do look a little like penises,” she admitted. “Or is it peni? What’s the plural of penis?”

  “Pene?” Rory asked and they both cracked up.

  Willa got a hold of herself. “Clearly I’m in need of Tina’s caffeine, bad.”

  “I’ll go,” Rory said. “I caught sight of her coming through the courtyard at the crack of dawn wearing six-inch wedge sneakers, her hair teased to the North Pole, making her look, like, eight feet tall.”

  Tina used to be Tim and everyone in the five-story, offbeat historical Pacific Pier Building had enjoyed Tim—but they loved Tina. Tina rocked.

  “What’s your order?” Rory asked.

  Tina’s coffees came in themes and Willa knew just what she needed for the day ahead. “One of her It’s Way Too Early for Life’s Nonsense.” She pulled some more cash from her pocket and this time a handful of puppy treats came out too, bouncing all over the floor.

  “And to think, you can’t get a date,” Rory said dryly.

  “Not can’t get a date,” Willa corrected. “Don’t want a date. I pick the wrong men, something I’m not alone in . . .”

  Rory blew out a sigh at the truth of that statement and then went brows up when Willa’s stomach growled like a roll of thunder.

  “Okay, so grab me a muffin as well.” Tina made the best muffins on the planet. “Make it two. Or better yet, three. No, wait.” Her jeans had been hard to button that morning. “Crap, three muffins would be my entire day’s calories. One,” she said firmly. “One muffin for me and make it a blueberry so it counts as a serving of fruit.”

  “Got it,” Rory said. “A coffee, a blueberry muffin, and a straitjacket on the side.”

  “Ha-ha. Now get out of here before I change m
y order again.”

  South Bark had two doors, one that opened to the street, the other to the building’s courtyard with its beautiful cobblestones and the historical old fountain that Willa could never resist tossing a coin into and wishing for true love as she passed.

  Rory headed out the courtyard door.

  “Hey,” Willa said. “If there’s any change, throw a coin into the fountain for me?”

  “So you’re on a self-imposed man embargo but you still want to wish on true love?”

  “Yes, please.”

  Rory shook her head. “It’s your dime.” She didn’t believe in wishes or wasting even a quarter, but she obediently headed out.

  When she was gone, Willa’s smile faded. Each of her three part-time employees was young and they all had one thing in common.

  Life had churned them up and spit them out at a young age, leaving them out there in the big, bad world all alone.

  Since Willa had been one of those lost girls herself, she collected them. She gave them jobs and advice that they only listened to about half the time.

  But she figured fifty percent was better than zero percent.

  Her most recent hire was nineteen-year-old Lyndie, who was still a little feral but they were working on that. Then there was Cara, who’d come a long way. Rory had been with Willa the longest. The girl put up a strong front but she still struggled. Proof positive was the fading markings of a bruise on her jaw where her ex-boyfriend had knocked her into a doorjamb.

  Just the thought had Willa clenching her fists. Sometimes at night she dreamed about what she’d like to do to the guy. High on the list was cutting off his twig and berries with a dull knife but she had an aversion to jail.

  Rory deserved better. Tough as nails on the outside, she was a tender marshmallow on the inside, and she’d do anything for Willa. It was sweet, but also a huge responsibility because Rory looked to Willa for her normal.

  A daunting prospect on the best of days.

  She checked on Six and found the puppy finally fast asleep sprawled on his back, feet spread wide to show the world his most prized possessions.

  Just like a man for you.

  Next she checked on his siblings. Also asleep. Feeling like the mother of sextuplets, she tiptoed back out to the front and opened her laptop, planning to inventory the new boxes of supplies she’d received late the night before.

  She’d just gotten knee-deep in four different twenty-five-pound sacks of bird feed—she still couldn’t believe how many people in San Francisco had birds—when someone knocked on the front glass door.

  Damn. It was only a quarter after eight but it went against the grain to turn away a paying customer. Straightening, she swiped her hands on her apron and looked up.

  A guy stood on the other side of the glass, mouth grim, expression dialed to Tall, Dark, and Attitude-ridden. He was something too, all gorgeous and broody and—hold up. There was something familiar about him, enough that her feet propelled her forward out of pure curiosity. When it hit her halfway to the door, she froze, her heart just about skidding to a stop.

  “Keane Winters,” she murmured, lip curling like she’d just eaten a black licorice. She hated black licorice. But she was looking at the only man on the planet who could make her feel all puckered up as well as good about her decision to give up men.

  In fact, if she’d only given them up sooner, say back on the day of the Sadie Hawkins dance in her freshman year of high school when he’d stood her up, she’d have saved herself a lot of heartache in the years since.

  On the other side of the door, Keane shoved his mirrored sunglasses to the top of his head, revealing dark chocolate eyes that she knew could melt when he was amused or feeling flirtatious, or turn to ice when he was so inclined.

  They were ice now.

  Catching her gaze, he lifted a cat carrier. A bright pink bedazzled carrier.

  He had a cat.

  Her entire being wanted to soften at this knowledge because that meant on some level at least he had to be a good guy, right?

  Luckily her brain clicked on, remembering everything, every little detail of that long ago night. Like how she’d had to borrow a dress for the dance from a girl in her class who’d gleefully lorded it over her, how she’d had to beg her foster mother to let her go, how she’d stolen a Top Ramen from the locked pantry and eaten it dry in the bathroom so she wouldn’t have to buy both her dinner and his, as was custom for the “backward” dance.

  “We’re closed,” she said through the still locked glass door.

  Not a word escaped his lips. He simply raised the cat carrier another inch, like he was God’s gift.

  And he had been. At least in high school.

  Wishing she’d gotten some caffeine before dealing with this, she blew out a breath and stepped closer, annoyed at her eyes because they refused to leave his as she unlocked and then opened the door. Just another customer, she told herself. One that had ruined her life like it was nothing without so much as an apology . . . “Morning,” she said, determined to be polite.

  Not a single flicker of recognition crossed his face and she found something even more annoying than this man being on her doorstep.

  The fact that she’d been so forgettable he didn’t even remember her.

  “I’m closed until nine.” She said this in her most pleasant voice although a little bit of eff-you might’ve been implied.

  “I’ve got to be at work by nine,” he said. “I want to board a cat for the day.”

  Keane had always been big and intimidating. It was what had made him such an effective jock. He’d ruled on the football field, the basketball court, and the baseball diamond. The perfect trifecta, the all-around package.

  Every girl in the entire school—and also a good amount of the teachers—had spent an indecent amount of time eyeballing that package.

  But just as Willa had given up men, she’d even longer ago given up thinking about that time, inarguably the worst years of her life. While Keane had been off breaking records and winning hearts, she’d been drowning under the pressures of school and work, not to mention basic survival.

  She got that it wasn’t his fault her memories of that time were horrific. Nor was it his fault that just looking at him brought them all back to her. But emotions weren’t logical. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’m all full up today.”

  “I’ll pay double.”

  He had a voice like fine whiskey. Not that she ever drank fine whiskey. Even the cheap stuff was a treat. And maybe it was just her imagination, but she was having a hard time getting past the fact that he was both the same and yet had changed. He was still tall, of course, and built sexy as hell, damn him. Broad shoulders, lean hips, biceps straining his shirt as he held up the cat carrier.

  He wore faded ripped jeans on his long legs and scuffed work boots. His only concession to the San Francisco winter was a long-sleeved T-shirt that enhanced all those ripped muscles and invited her to BITE ME in big block letters across his chest.

  She wasn’t going to lie to herself, she kind of wanted to. Hard.

  He stood there exuding raw, sexual power and energy—not that she was noticing. Nor was she taking in his expression that said maybe he’d already had a bad day.

  He could join her damn club.

  And at that thought, she mentally smacked herself in the forehead. No! There would be no club joining. She’d set boundaries for herself. She was Switzerland. Neutral. No importing or exporting of anything including sexy smoldering glances, hot body parts, nothing.


  Especially not with Keane Winters, thank you very much. And anyway, she didn’t board animals for the general public. Yes, sometimes she boarded as special favors for clients, a service she called “fur-babysitting” because her capacity here was too small for official boarding. If and when she agreed to “babysit” overnight as a favor, it meant taking her boarders home with her, so she was extremely selective.

  And handsome men wh
o’d once been terribly mean boys who ditched painfully shy girls after she’d summoned up every ounce of her courage to ask him out to a dance did not fit her criteria. “I don’t board—” she started, only to be interrupted by an unholy howl from inside the pink cat carrier.

  It was automatic for her to reach for it, and Keane readily released it with what looked to be comical relief.

  Turning her back on him, Willa carried the carrier to the counter, incredibly aware that Keane followed her through her shop,