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The Marriage Ultimatum
By Anne Winston
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Derek, I think we should get married."
"You think we - what?" Derek Mahoney almost dropped the instrument he was using to place sutures in a setter's paw. Sensing a break in the veterinarian's concentration, the animal tried to flounder to its feet.
Kristin Gordon shifted her grip on the squirming canine she was holding for Derek. Her thick, curly braid slid forward and she flipped it back out of the way with an impatient toss of her head. "I said I think we should get married."
"Oh." Derek grinned and relaxed. Kristin hadn't changed a bit since she was a teenager. She still came up with all kinds of wild ideas. "Sure thing, Kris. Do you think we could fit it in during my lunch break?"
Kristin's green eyes narrowed as she studied him over the top of the dog's head. Her dark brows, striking against her porcelain skin, rose and drew together in what Derek recognized as a temper-pending, "This-is-not-a-joke" look. "Derek, I'm -"
"Serious," he said in unison with her.
"Morning, Dr. Mahoney. Hi, Kristin. Thanks for filling in for me. When I dropped my kids off at school, I realized I had a flat tire." Faye, Derek's veterinary technician, breezed into the Quartz Forge Animal Clinic, still buttoning her lab coat. "How's old Princess doing?"
"She looks great for a twelve-year-old dog that tangled with a mower blade." Derek lifted the animal and set her gently on the floor, grateful for the change of subject. "Mrs. Peters is in the waiting room. You can take Princess out to her. No vigorous exercise, antibiotics, an Elizabethan collar if she chews at the stitches."
"Okay." Faye handed him a chart. "Mutley is coming in for exploratory surgery tomorrow. The owner would like to talk to you again before he goes under the knife."
Derek took the chart as he opened the door for Faye and the aging red setter to precede him.
Reluctantly, he looked over his shoulder. For a minute there, he'd actually thought he was going to get out of the room without further discussion. "Kris." He inclined his head toward the door. "I have a waiting room full of anxious pet owners out there to see. You have to take care of my daughter and get back to your own work. Why don't we discuss the wedding plans tonight?"
"You're not taking this seriously." She was still frowning as she marched past him.
"You're right." He couldn't resist tugging on the end of her long, blond braid. He'd often teased her this way over the past ten years - since the first time he'd seen her when he'd come to the Pennsylvania mountains to interview with her father for the veterinary practice partnership Paul Gordon was advertising. She'd been a tomboyish sixteen-year-old then. These days, she wore her hair up in a practical, if often untidy style most of the time.
Other than that, she hadn't changed all that much, he thought in amusement as he surveyed her tall, slender figure clad in one of her father's old flannel shirts and a loose pair of khaki trousers. If it weren't for that glorious mane of curls, she could have been a boy.
Derek jerked up his head at the sound of the childish voice. He barely had time to catch his not-quite-three-year-old daughter as Mollie hurled herself down the hallway and into his arms.
"Hey, squirt." He rubbed his nose gently against hers. "Have you had fun playing with Sandy while Kristin helped me?" Sandy, his receptionist, wasn't confident handling big dogs. She'd volunteered to watch Mollie if Kristin would help Derek until Faye arrived.
"We made paper dolls!" Mollie waved the string of paper figures at him while she paused, clearly thinking of her next words. He drank in the sight of her big, earnest blue eyes, the rosy cheeks and flyaway dark curls.
What would he have done without her? Losing Deb had been the worst nightmare a man could ever have. One day, they'd been eagerly anticipating the birth of their first child. The next, he'd been hearing phrases like, "No options,"
"metastasize" and "can't risk radiation during the pregnancy." They'd spent the remaining nine weeks of Deb's pregnancy in a daze. It wasn't until two months after Mollie's birth, when he'd stood beside his wife's grave holding his healthy infant daughter in his arms, that he'd begun to realize the finality of what the doctors had told him.
Mollie was still chattering away as Kristin approached, holding the light jacket he'd put on his daughter this morning before he'd dropped her off at Kristin's town house. "Come on, Mols. Let's get your coat on and go play outside."
Derek set Mollie on the floor and she immediately ran to Kristin, who gave her a hug before stuffing her small arms into the coat. "Were you a good girl for Miss Sandy?"
"Yes." Mollie nodded positively.
"Great! I'm proud of you. Tell Daddy we'll see him at supper time."
"Bye, Daddy. See you at supper time," Mollie parroted, and he waved as Kristin led her out the back door. As the door closed behind them, he shook his head fondly. What a pair. The two were as close as sisters. He couldn't have asked for a better friend than Kristin over the past few years.
"Kristin takes mighty good care of that little girl of yours." Faye came back down the hallway carrying a cat that was scheduled for blood work.
Derek nodded. "I don't know what I'd do without her." Then he grinned, remembering how Kristin had shaken him up in the exam room. "But she sure does come up with some mighty strange schemes."
Faye smiled. She'd worked for Kristin's father, "Doc" Gordon, before Derek took over the practice and she'd known Kristin since she had been a young child. "Let me guess. She wants to start flying lessons."
Excerpted from The Marriage Ultimatum by Anne Winston Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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