About That Kiss, p.1part #5 of Heartbreaker Bay Series by Jill Shalvis / Romance & Love
To the best readers on the planet—romance readers!
I’m grateful to each one of you every single day.
Happy Reading! XOXO!
Kylie Masters watched him walk into her shop like he owned it while simultaneously pretending not to notice him. A tricky balancing act that she’d gotten good at. Problem was, like it or not, her attention was caught and captured by the six foot, leanly muscled, scowling guy now standing directly in front of her, hands shoved in his pockets, body language clearly set to Frustrated Male.
She sighed, gave up the ridiculous pretense of being engrossed by her phone, and looked up. She was supposed to smile and ask how she could help him. That’s what they all did when it was their turn to work the front counter at Reclaimed Woods. They were to show potential clients their custom-made goods when what they really wanted was to be in the back workshop making their own individual projects. Kylie’s specialty was dining room sets, which meant she wore a thick apron and goggles to protect herself and was perpetually covered in sawdust.
And she did mean covered in sawdust. Wood flakes dusted her hair and stuck to her exposed arms, and if she’d been wearing any makeup today, they’d have been stuck to her face as well. In short, she was not looking how she wanted to be looking while facing this man again. Not even close. “Joe,” she said in careful greeting.
He gave her a single head nod.
Okay, so he wasn’t going to talk first. Fine. She’d be the grown-up today. “What can I do for you?” she asked, fairly certain he wasn’t here to shop for furniture. He wasn’t exactly the domesticated type.
Joe ran a hand through his hair so that the military short, dark, silky strands stood straight up. He wore a black T-shirt stretched over broad shoulders, loose over tight abs, untucked over cargos that emphasized his mile-long legs. He was built like the soldier he’d been not too long ago, as if keeping fit was his job—which, given what he did for a living, it absolutely was. He shoved his mirrored sunglasses to the top of his head, revealing ice blue eyes that could be hard as stone when working, but she knew that they could also soften when he was amused, aroused, or having fun. He was none of those three things at the moment.
“I need a birthday present for Molly,” he said.
Molly was his sister, and from what Kylie knew of the Malone family, they were close. Everyone knew this and adored the both of them. Kylie herself adored Molly.
She did not adore Joe.
“Okay,” she said. “What do you want to get for her?”
“She made me a list.” Joe pulled the list written in Molly’s neat scrawl from one of his many cargo pants pockets.
—Puppies. (Yes, plural!)
—Shoes. I lurve shoes. Must be as hot as Elle’s.
—Concert tickets to Beyoncé.
—A release from the crushing inevitability of death.
—The gorgeous wooden inlay mirror made by Kylie.
“It’s not her birthday for several weeks,” Joe said as Kylie read the list. “But she told me the mirror’s hanging behind the counter, and I didn’t want it to be sold before I could buy it.” His sharp blue eyes searched the wall behind her. “That one,” he said, pointing to an intricately wood-lined mirror that Kylie had indeed made. “She says she fell in love with it. Not all that surprising since your work’s amazing.”
Kylie did her best to keep this from making her glow with pleasure. She and Joe had known each other casually for the year that they’d both been working in this building. Until two nights ago, they’d never done anything but annoy each other. So that he thought of her as amazing was news to her. “I didn’t know you were even aware of my work.”
Instead of answering, his eyes narrowed at the price tag hanging off the mirror, and he let out a low whistle.
“I don’t get to set the prices here,” she said, irritating herself with her defensive tone. She had no idea why she let him drive her so crazy with little to no effort on his part, but she did her best to not examine the reasons for this.
Joe had been special ops and still had most of his skills, skills he used on his job at an investigation and securities firm upstairs, where he was, for the lack of a better term, a professional finder and fixer. He was a calm and impenetrable badass on the job, and a calm, impenetrable smartass off it. On the worst of days, he made her feel like a seesaw. On the best of days, he made her feel things she liked to shove deep, deep down, because going there with him would be like jumping out of a plane—thrilling, exciting . . . and then certain dismemberment and death.
While she was thinking about this and other things she shouldn’t be thinking, Joe was eyeballing the opened box of chocolates on the counter, which a client had brought in earlier. A little card said Help Yourself! and his gaze locked in on the last Bordeaux—her favorite. She’d been saving it as a reward if she made it all day without wanting to strangle anyone.
Mission failed. “It’ll go right to your hips,” she warned.
He met her eyes, his own amused. “You worried about my body, Kylie?”
She used the excuse to look him over. Not exactly a hardship. He was lean, solid muscle. Rumors were that he’d done some MMA fighting right after his service and she believed it. He was perfect and they both knew it. “I didn’t want to mention it,” she said, “but I think you’re starting to get a spare tire.”
“Is that right?” He cocked his head, eyes amused. “A spare tire, huh? Anything else?”
“Welllllll . . . maybe a little junk in the trunk.”
He out-and-out grinned at that, the cocky bastard. “Then maybe we should share the chocolate,” he said and offered the Bordeaux to her, bringing it up to her lips.
Against her better judgment, she took a bite, resisting the urge to also sink her teeth into his fingers.
With a soft laugh that told her he’d read her mind, he popped the other half into his own mouth and then licked some melted chocolate off his thumb with a suctioning sound that went straight to her nipples, which was super annoying. It was February and blistery outside but suddenly she was warm. Very warm.
“So,” he said when he’d swallowed. “The mirror. I’ll take it.” Reaching into yet another mystery pocket, he pulled out a credit card. “Wrap it up.”
“You can’t have it.”
At this, he studied her with a hint of surprise, like maybe he’d never been told no before in his life.
And hell, looking like he did, he probably hadn’t been.
“Okay,” he said. “I get it. It’s because I never called, right?”
She pushed his hand—and the credit card in it—away. But not before she felt the heat and the easy strength of him, both of which only further annoyed her. “Wrong,” she said. “Not everything’s about you, Joe.”
“True. This is clearly about us,” he said. “And that kiss.”
Oh hell no. He didn’t just bring it up like that, like it was some throwaway event. She pointed to the door. “Get out.”
He just smiled. And didn’t get out.
Dammit. She’d grounded herself from thinking about that kiss. That one drunken, very stupid kiss that haunted her dreams and way too many waking moments as well. But it all flooded back to her now, releasing a bunch of stupid endorphins and everything. She inhaled a deep breath, locked her knees and her heart, and mentally tossed away the key. “What kiss?”
He gave her a get real look.
“Oh, that kiss.” She shrugged nonchalantly as she reached for her water bottle. “I barely remember it.”
“Funny,” he said in a voice of pure sin. “Cuz it rocked my world.”
She choked on her water, coughing and sputtering. “The mirror’s still not for sale,” she finally managed to wheeze out, wiping her mouth.
I rocked his world?
His warm, amused gaze met hers, going smoky and dangerously charismatic. “I could change your mind.”
“On the mirror or the kiss?” she asked before she could stop herself.
She had no doubt. “The mirror’s already sold,” she said. “The new owner’s coming for it today.”
The buyer just happened to be Spence Baldwin, who owned the building in which they stood. The Pacific Pier Building, to be exact, one of the oldest in the Cow Hollow District of San Francisco. Since the building housed an eclectic mix of businesses on the first and second floors, and residential apartments on the third and fourth floors, all built around a cobblestone courtyard with a fountain that had been there back in the days when there’d still been actual cows in Cow Hollow, the entire place went a lot like the song—everyone knew everyone’s name.
In any case, Spence had bought the mirror for his girlfriend, Colbie, not that Kylie was going to tell Joe that. For one thing, Spence and Joe were good friends and Spence might let Joe have the mirror.
And though she didn’t know why, Kylie didn’t want Joe to have it. Okay, so she did know why. Things came easy to Joe. Good looking, exciting job . . . hell, life came easy to him.
“I’ll commission a new one,” Joe said, still looking unconcerned. “You can make another just like it, right?”
Yes, and normally a commissioned piece would be a thrill. Kylie wasn’t all that established yet and could certainly use the work. But instead of being excited, she felt . . . unsettled. Because if she agreed to the job, there’d be ongoing contact. Conversations.
And here was the thing—she didn’t trust him. No, that wasn’t right. She didn’t trust herself with him. I rocked his world? Because he’d sent hers spinning and the truth was, it’d take no effort at all to once again end up glued to him at the lips. “I’m sorry, but maybe you can get Molly . . .” she eyed the list again ” . . . puppies.”
And speaking of puppies, just then from the back room came a high-pitched bark. Vinnie was up from his nap. Next came the pitter-patter of paws scrambling. At the doorway between the shop and the showroom, he skidded to a stop and lifted a paw, poking at the empty air in front of his face.
Not too long ago, her undersized rescue pup had run face-first into a glass door. So now he went through this pantomime routine at every doorway he came to. And she did mean every doorway. Poor Vinnie had PTSD, and she was his emotional support human.
When Vinnie was thoroughly satisfied that there was no hidden glass to run into, he was off and galloping again, a dark brown blur skidding around the corner of the counter like a cat on linoleum. He was half French bulldog and half Muppet, and no one had ever told him that he was under a foot tall and twelve pounds soaking wet. He actually thought he was the big man on campus, and he smiled the whole way as he ran straight for Kylie, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, drool dribbling in his wake.
Heart melting, Kylie started to bend to reach for him, but he flew right by her.
Joe had squatted low, hands held out for the dog, who never so much glanced over at Kylie as he took a flying leap into Joe’s waiting arms. Arms that she knew were warm and strong and gave great hugs, dammit.
Man and pup straightened, rubbing faces together for a moment while Kylie did her best not to melt. Like most French bulldogs’, Vinnie’s expression often read glum. She called it his RBF—resting bitch face. But he was actually the opposite of glum, and the mischievous, comical, amiable light in his eyes revealed that.
“Hey little man,” Joe murmured, flashing that killer smile of his at her pup, who was valiantly attempting to lick his face off. Joe laughed and the sound caused an answering tug from deep inside Kylie, which was maddening.
She had no idea what was up with her hormones lately, but luckily they weren’t in charge. Her brain was. And her brain wasn’t interested in Joe, excellent kisser or not. See, she had a long history with his kind—fast, wild, fun, and . . . dangerous. Not her own personal history, but her mother’s, and she refused to be the apple who fell too close to the tree.
“I’ll pay extra,” Joe said, still loving up on Vinnie to the dog’s utter delight. “To commission a new mirror.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” she said. “I’ve got jobs in front of you, jobs I have to finish on a schedule. A mirror I haven’t yet even started isn’t for sale.”
“Everything’s for sale,” Joe said.
And how well she knew it. Shaking her head, she reached beneath the front counter, pulled a miniature tennis ball from her bag, and waved it in front of Vinnie, who began to try to swim through the air to get to the ball.
“Cheater,” Joe chastened mildly, but obligingly set Vinnie down. The dog immediately snorted in excitement and raced to Kylie, quickly going through his entire repertoire of tricks without pause, sitting, offering a paw to shake, lying down, rolling over . . .
“Cute,” Joe said. “Does he fetch?”
“Of course.” But truthfully, fetch wasn’t Vinnie’s strong suit. Grunting, farting, or snoring—these were his strong suits. He also often went off the rails with no warning, zooming around a room in a frantic sprint until he started panting and then passed out. But he did not fetch, not that she’d admit it. “Vinnie, fetch,” she said hopefully and tossed the ball a few feet away.
The dog gave a bark of sheer joy and gamely took off, his short bowlegs churning up the distance. But as always, stopping was a problem and he overshot the ball. Overcorrecting to make the sharp turn, he careened right into a wall. He made a strong recovery though and went back for the ball.
Not that he returned it to Kylie. Nope. With the mini–tennis ball barely fitting in his mouth, Vinnie padded quickly into the back, presumably bringing his new treasure to his crate.
“Yeah, he’s great at fetch,” Joe said with a straight face.
“We’re still working on it,” she said just as a man came out from the back, joining them at the counter.
Gib was her boss, her friend, and her very longtime crush—though he knew only about the first two since dating her boss had never seemed like a smart idea—not that he’d ever asked her out or anything. He owned Reclaimed Woods and Kylie owed a lot to him. He’d hired her on here when she’d decided to follow in her grandpa’s footsteps and become a woodworker. Gib gave her a chance to make a name for herself. He was a good guy and everything she’d ever wanted in a man—kind, patient, sweet.
In other words, Joe’s polar opposite.
“Problem?” Gib asked.
“Just trying to make a purchase,” Joe said, nodding to the mirror.
Gib looked at Kylie. “Told you it was remarkable.”
It was pretty rare for Gib to hand out a compliment, and she felt her chest warm with surprise and pleasure. “Thanks.”
He nodded and squeezed her hand in his, momentarily rendering her incapacitated because . . . he was touching her. He never touched her. “But the mirror’s not available,” he said to Joe.
“Yeah,” Joe said, although his gaze didn’t leave Kylie’s. “I’m getting that.”
Suddenly there was an odd and unfamiliar beat of tension in the air, one Kylie wasn’t equipped to translate. Because her parents were teens when she was born, she’d been primarily raised by her grandpa. She’d learned unusual skills for a little girl, like how to operate a planer and joiner without losing any fingers, and how to place bets at the horse races. She’d also grown up into a quiet introvert, an old soul. She didn’t open up easily and as a result, not once in her entire life had two guys been interested in her at the same time. In fact, for long stretches of time, there’d been zero guys interested.
So to have that bone-melting kiss with Joe still messing with her head and now Gib suddenly showing interest after . . . well, years, she felt like a panicked teenager. A sweaty, panicked teenager. She jabbed a finger toward the back. “I’ve, um . . . gotta get to work,” she said and bailed like she was twelve years old instead of twenty-eight.