Fool's Gold Series
"Polish or no polish?" Carina Fiore held up two bottles of pet-friendly OPI nail polish. "I think the traditional choices would be best. Fire Hydrant Red or Bow Wow Green."
Eight-year-old Kaitlyn McKenzie laughed. "Rina, she's a cat."
"You're saying cats aren't into fashion? I'm not sure I agree. Just last week I caught this one flipping through In Style magazine." Rina studied the petite Calico sitting on her grooming table. The Calico stared back, her expression slightly defiant, as if daring Rina to try polish.
Rina held in a grin. Her plan was to put festive collars on the cats but she loved making Kaitlyn laugh.
The girl chuckled. "Cats can't read."
"You don't actually know that."
"Dad says they can't."
"Oh, well. Sure. Take the word of a veterinarian over me." Rina gave a heavy sigh.
Kaitlyn stepped around the grooming table and hugged her tight. "We'll do all the dogs' nails. I promise. I'll even help. We want them to look their best."
As much as Rina hated to admit it, cute pets got adopted faster. And as the person in charge of the Fool's Gold Holiday Pet Adoption, she intended to make sure every single animal looking for a home put his or her best foot forward. Or paw, or claw or fin. Not that she would be doing anything to groom the fish. Although she was putting little fish-friendly Christmas trees in the tanks.
Her normally tidy grooming space was currently overflowing with cat collars and doggie bandanas in holiday prints. Over the next two weeks, she would be bathing, brushing and clipping until all the pets up for adoption gleamed.
She glanced at the clock on the wall. "We'd better get you home, munchkin."
Kaitlyn looked up at her, her green eyes as dark and beautiful as her father's. "It's Friday."
"I heard that this morning on the news."
The girl's mouth turned up at the corner. "You know what that means."
"That tomorrow's Saturday?"
"Oh, right. I was thinking of something different for dinner."
Kaitlyn made a gagging sound.
Kaitlyn clutched her stomach. "I'm going to throw up."
Giggling, Kaitlyn ran out of the room.
Rina picked up the cat and stroked her. "What do you think about swamp soup?"
The cat purred.
Fifteen minutes later Rina had finished cleaning off her table and washing her brushes. She collected her backpack and walked toward the break room. One of the veterinary assistants stopped her.
"You have to say something," Jesse told her.
"Did I just say no? I'm sure I heard myself say no."
Jesse, a pretty blond, whom Rina had known since they were both zygotes, raised her eyebrows.
Rina glanced around to make sure they were alone. Even so, she lowered her voice. "I can't."
"You have to. It's been a year, Rina. This is insane. It's the holidays."
"I'm not sure what the time of year has to do with anything."
Jesse sighed. "It's when you want to be with the people you love. You love Cameron. Tell him."
Rina winced. "Don't say that," she whispered as forcefully as she could. "Not here. Someone might hear you."
"It's Friday afternoon. Everyone is gone but us. Cameron's out at the Castle Ranch, checking on one of the goats there." Her friend moved closer and thankfully, lowered her voice. "You're my best friend and I totally support whatever you decide, but I also know it's time to tell you that you're acting like an idiot."
"You've told me that every day for six months. It's hardly a news flash."
"Then do something. If not now, when? Are you going to waste another year being in love with a man who has no idea how you feel?"
Rina opened her mouth, then closed it. She wanted nothing more than to confess her feelings to the man she loved. But she wasn't the one who was the problem.
She could still remember the first time she'd seen Cameron McKenzie, DVM. He'd bought the practice from the retiring veterinarian, with a promise that all the staff would stay. That included her, the practice's resident groomer. He'd requested everyone meet with him on a Saturday afternoon. She'd walked into the building, not sure what to expect. He'd turned, smiled, and she'd been lost.
Seriously, there had practically been a swell of music and cartoon animals putting ribbons and flowers in her hair.
She wasn't sure what it was about Cameron that got to her. The wavy dark hair and deep green eyes were only the beginning of his good looks. Still, her feelings weren't all about how handsome he was. It was the way he cared about his work and how he treated his staff. But if she had to guess, she would say her fate had truly been sealed the moment she'd met Kaitlyn.
She adored the little girl and they had become instant friends. Kaitlyn was smart and funny and just as caring as her dad. The only part of their family that didn't make sense was the absence of a mother. Cameron didn't say much about his ex, so all of Rina's information had come from his daughter. Kaitlyn was fairly matter-of-fact about her past, stating her mommy had left shortly after Kaitlyn had been born. Rina could still remember her steady gaze as she'd said, "Babies are a lot of work and my mommy wasn't ready."
Cameron had shared few details, but those he mentioned were in line with what Kaitlyn had said. That his wife had walked away from her newborn and husband and had never returned.
Since then, from what she could tell, he'd devoted himself to being a single father and working hard at his practice. He never dated, hadn't once been caught flirting and showed no interest in one woman over another. In a town with a man shortage, he was practically an irresistible force.
Rina had told herself she would get over her crush, that it was just that Cameron was new and shiny. But as time had passed, her feelings had only grown. Now everything was complicated because of the fact that she took care of Kaitlyn.
Every school day, Rina arrived at the McKenzie household early, made sure Kaitlyn was up and dressed, then fixed her breakfast and walked her to the bus. After school the girl rode the bus to the veterinary practice where she hung out with Rina until it was time to go home.
Back at McKenzie house, Rina helped her with her homework and started dinner. In the past few months, she'd begun staying to eat with them. Unfortunately, she couldn't remember exactly how that had started. She wanted to say that Cameron had asked, but she suspected the invitation had come from his daughter.
Cameron paid her both as a groomer and as the person taking care of his daughter. And even though he was friendly and considerate, she couldn't be completely sure he'd ever thought of her as more than a friend. Which meant admitting her feelings put a lot on the line. What if he wasn't interested? What if telling the truth meant losing her friendship with Kaitlyn and her job?
"I'd rather have what I have now than not have anything at all," Rina admitted to her friend.
Jesse shook her head. "You're living half a life, Rina, and that's not you. Your parents were crazy about each other until they day they died. Your grandparents are still in love. Don't you want what they have?"
"Love is supposed to be scary. If it was easy, everyone would do it."
Rina knew she was right. The thought of having it all, of being able to admit her feelings to Cameron and having him feel the same way, made her ache with longing. She'd known he was the one from the first second they'd met and her feelings had never wavered. But...
"What if he doesn't love me back?"
"Then you hurt and heal and find someone else."
"I don't want anyone else."
"So you'd rather have half of nothing than take the chance? That's not like you."
"I wouldn't just be losing him. I'd lose Kaitlyn, too."
"You wouldn't have to. You could still be friends with her."
Rina was less sure that was possible. Losing one would be hard enough, but losing them both would be more than she could handle.
ONLY US is an ebook exclusive, but even if you don't have an ereader, you'll be able to read it. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble now offer free software so you read ebooks on your computer, so you never have to miss another ebook exclusive again! Just install the free Kindle for PC or Nook for PC software on your computer, then you can buy ONLY US. This is a great way to dip your toe into the ereading world, to see if you like it. The software is free, and the story is available at a great, low price. ONLY US is a novella, meaning that it's only about 70 pages long, so you can test out onscreen reading to see what you think, without having to make a big investment of money or time.
Fool's Gold, Book No. 6.5
Pet groomer Carina Fiore wants nothing more than to confess her feelings to the man she loves. She's drawn to veterinarian Cameron McKenzie's good looks, caring nature and especially his devotion to his young daughter. But he's also her boss and a good friend. Putting her heart on the line could cost Rina both her job and their friendship forever.
Since his divorce, Cameron hasn't been willing to trust his heart—or his daughter—with anyone else. For months he's pushed away all thoughts of taking Rina in his arms and kissing her, unwilling to risk their friendship for a single night of pleasure. But when a kiss under the mistletoe unlocks the simmering passion between them, Rina and Cameron may just find love for the holidays after all...
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SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.