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"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 Carina tightly. "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 blonde 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, Carina noticed 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.
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'd 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 beginnings 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; 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 more complicated because of the fact that she took care of Kaitlyn.
Every school day, Rina arrived at the McKen-zie 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 the 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 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 the 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.
"Tinsel and goats don't mix," Cameron said, looping his stethoscope around his neck. "Not that she'll listen."
Heidi Simpson nodded as she knelt next to her goat. "I swear, Athena has supernatural powers. She's forever getting out of her pen and doing things she shouldn't. I've been so careful with the holiday decorations."
Cameron believed her. Unfortunately a single box of tinsel had fallen out of her shopping bag and Athena had found it. Like most goats, she was willing to eat nearly everything. The tinsel had tangled in her digestive system, but had finally worked its way through.
"She'll be fine now," he said. "Give her a couple of days for her stomach to calm down." He patted the goat resting in the small goat barn, then rose to his feet.
"You've been great," Heidi told him as she stood as well. "You've been here every day. I really appreciate it."
"Part of the job."
"Still. I know Athena is grateful, too, even if she's having trouble articulating her feelings."
Heidi smiled as she spoke.
Cameron collected his medical bag then followed Heidi to his truck. It was late afternoon on the first Friday in December. The skies were dark and threatening, but the temperature wasn't cold enough for snow in town. Further up the mountain, they could get a good dump in the next couple of days.
Holiday decorations brightened the old house that stood on the ranch. The exterior was a little shabby, but the twinkling lights added a welcoming glow. Heidi was friendly enough. Pretty, he thought absently. Single. He should have been interested, maybe ask her to coffee or out for a drink. Only he wasn't the least bit interested.
He'd dated plenty when he'd been younger and had learned he was the kind of man who wanted to settle down. The problem was with whom.
After his daughter had been born, his ex-wife had announced she was leaving. From his point of view, her desire to leave had come out of nowhere, leaving him blindsided and the single father of a newborn. It had taken him a while to realize that whatever made his wife leave was out of his control.
Over the past few years, he'd become aware of a nagging sense of having missed something. Fool's Gold had plenty of single women and he'd been set up with more than his share. But he hadn't felt the need for further dates with any of them. Maybe the problem was hishe wasn't willing to trust his daughter or his heart with just anyone.
Heidi paused by his truck. "Thanks again."
"You're welcome. You have my cell number. Call me if there are any problems."
"Don't you ever go off duty?"
"This town is lucky to have you."
He chuckled. "Remind people of that the next time I raise my rates."
"I will, I promise." She smiled. "Don't take this wrong, but I'm hoping not to see you before the holidays. Unless you plan to bring your daughter by for a horse-drawn carriage ride. We're keeping the tradition in place for the holidays."
"We might have to come by for that." He grinned. "But not for anything else. How's that?"
"Perfect. Merry Christmas."
"The same to you, Heidi."
He got in his truck and started the engine. Heidi walked up the porch steps. He watched her go, hoping for a spark or even vague interest in the sway of her hips.
Twenty minutes later Cameron was pulling into his own driveway. The Christmas lights he'd spent much of the long Thanksgiving weekend putting up glowed in the darkness. Lit wreaths hung in all the front-facing windows, along with flickering candles. Not real candles. Kaitlyn had informed him those weren't really safe around fabric or children. So she and Rina had bought battery-powered ones from the hardware store in town.
Like most homeowners in Fool's Gold, he had an account at the hardware store. Based on all the packages his daughter and Rina had dragged home from various trips, he wasn't looking forward to that bill. But it was worth it to see his baby girl so excited about the holidays.
He parked in the driveway and turned off the engine. Before he could step out, the front door banged open and Kaitlyn flew across the porch.
As always the sight of her made him want to get down on his knees in gratitude for having her in his world. Sure, the first couple of years had been tough as he and his daughter had figured out how to make a single-parent family work. But every second of fear and worry had been worth it. She was the best part of his life.
He left his bag on the passenger seat and stepped into the night. Kaitlyn flung herself at him, wrapping both her arms around his waist and hanging on tight.
"Hey, baby girl," he said softly, touching her cheek.
She looked up at him, grinning. There was a smudge of flour on her cheeks and a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. "We're making cookies. Rina said we could and it's Friday!" As if the cookies were all the more magical because of the day.
"Christmas cookies?" he asked, already knowing the answer.
"Uh-huh. We rolled them out and then used cookie cutters and now they're cooling and after dinner we're decorating and Rina said you could help." She paused to draw breath. "I can't stand waiting, can you?"