Authors: Susan Mallery
“That made me sound like a stalker,” she admitted. “Of course I can live without Cameron.” Her humor faded. “I wish I didn’t love him. Or that he loved me back. This sucks.”
“Yes, it does. It hurts and you feel awful.”
Rina looked at her friend and sniffed. “Are you trying to make me feel better? Because it’s not really working.”
Jesse touched her arm. “Dealing with this will get easier. Once the holidays are over, you can find a place to move your business to and start to cut ties.”
Rina nodded and wiped away tears. “You’re right. I’m not going to give up seeing Kaitlyn, though. I want to talk to Cameron about working out a schedule. Maybe I can take her a couple of afternoons a week.”
“See, you have a plan.”
Or at least part of one,
Rina thought glumly.
The sound of several women laughing caused her to look to the bar side of the room. At least thirty women were setting up for what looked to be a bridal shower. Rina remembered all three of the Hendrix triplets were getting married over the holidays. Not that she begrudged them their happiness, but ouch.
“This hurts,” she admitted. “What a stupid time of year to put it all on the line. I love Christmas. It was always a big thing in my house and I know my grandparents are looking forward to it.”
“So you’ll be with them and that will be nice.”
“I know, it’s just...” She swallowed and fought more tears. “We’re supposed to go Friday to pick out the tree. That will be hard.”
Jesse leaned toward her. “I know it will.”
“You’re not going to try and talk me out of it?”
“No. If you think you can stand it, you should stick with what’s planned. For Kaitlyn. She adores you and getting a Christmas tree is a big deal for an eight-year-old.” Jesse studied her. “You’ve seen him?”
“Since I made my pronouncement yesterday? Briefly. When he came home from work and again this morning when I went to get her ready for school. He hasn’t said anything.”
This morning he’d simply handed her a cup of coffee and said he would see her at the office. Kaitlyn had been the one to remind her about their date to pick out a tree.
“I’m avoiding him at work,” Kaitlyn said. “It’s a month, right? I can stand this for a month.”
Jesse shifted in her seat. “He came to talk to me this morning.”
Rina stared at her. “And? What did he say?”
“That he wasn’t online anymore. Looking.”
Looking, as in... “Oh. You mean he’s not trying to find someone.”
Rina picked up her glass of wine, then put it down. She was sure it was wonderful, but she’d yet to take a sip. The thought of it made her stomach flip, and not in a good way.
“I wasn’t sure if I should tell you,” Jesse admitted.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to get my hopes up. Cameron isn’t a bad guy. He’s stupid, but not evil. I made it pretty clear that rejecting me and going in search of an online girlfriend in the same day was awful and I’m guessing he believed me.”
“So we’ll fake our way through this. After the first of the year, I won’t have to deal with him anymore.”
The thought should have relieved her but instead she felt sad and empty. Because dealing with Cameron and his daughter had become the best part of her world.
“It’s snowing!” Kaitlyn stared up at the sky, her eyes wide, her lips curving into a huge grin.
Tiny, wispy flakes drifted to the ground. Rina knew they wouldn’t stick and that in a matter of minutes the snow would stop, but for as long as it lasted, it was beautiful. An unexpected gift designed to remind her life did indeed keep moving on.
She and Kaitlyn walked through the Christmas-tree lot. Holiday music blasted out of battered speakers and plastic reindeer and Santas blinked on and off. The two college-age guys helping customers wore sweatshirts with snowmen on the front.
Kaitlyn clapped her mitten-covered hands together. “They’re all so beautiful. How will we decide? Daddy said the ceilings are twelve feet tall, so we can’t get anything taller than that.”
“We could if we put the tree at an angle.”
Kaitlyn laughed. “It would look funny and all the decorations would fall off.”
“If you’re going to be picky.”
The girl wrapped her arms around Rina’s waist and squeezed. Rina hugged her back, holding on to the moment, knowing that even if she saw Cameron’s daughter a couple of days a week, their relationship would never be the same.
Kaitlyn released her and raced to her father. Rina gave herself a second to brace herself, then turned to look at Cameron.
Tiny snowflakes dotted his hair and landed on his leather jacket. His green eyes were more guarded than usual, as if he was unsure of how things were going to be between them. Determined to take the emotional high road, Rina gave him a smile.
“We were discussing tree size,” she said cheerfully. “Apparently twelve feet is the limit.”
“I’d say ten,” he told her. “There’s an angel to put on top.”
Kaitlyn nodded. “She’s beautiful and has wings. I’d forgotten about that.”
“Ten feet is still a pretty big tree.” Rina held out her hand to Kaitlyn. “Let’s walk around and we’ll figure out which ones we like.”
The girl grabbed her father’s hand, then Rina’s, walking between them. They’d done this dozens of times before. Rina had always enjoyed the connection, but this time there was also a whisper of pain curling the edges of the moment, a reminder that in a few weeks, she would be moving on, no longer a part of the McKenzie family. Not that she’d ever been a member, but she’d foolishly allowed herself to pretend.
The college guys loaded the chosen tree into the back of Cameron’s truck. Rina hovered awkwardly, not sure exactly when she was supposed to leave. Cameron was paying for the tree and Kaitlyn had run into a couple of her friends from school. The three girls were huddled together, laughing about something.
Part of her wanted simply to disappear into the happy crowds on the street, but ducking out without saying good-bye seemed rude. Cameron was doing his best to act normal. She should do the same. Technically, she’d been the one to change the rules by telling him how she felt. Not that she regretted being honest, but it seemed the least she could do was play along.
He pocketed the receipt, then joined her. “She’s going to be a while,” he said, nodding at his daughter.
“She has a lot of friends.”
“I’m glad. When we first moved here, I worried that she wouldn’t fit in.”
“Fool’s Gold is very welcoming. My maternal grandparents lived here all their lives. My mom grew up here. With my dad in the army, we moved around a lot, but we settled here just before I started high school.” Now she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Cameron studied her. “You must miss your folks.”
She nodded. “It’s been six years since they died, but yeah, I do. Especially now. Christmas was always a big deal in my house.” She smiled, remembering. “We always got holiday pajamas on Christmas Eve. My mom tried to find ones that were exactly alike. Then we wore them on Christmas morning and made breakfast together. It was wonderful.”
“That’s what I want Kaitlyn to have. Memories. You’ve really helped with that. Thanks for being here today.”
“You know I care about her. Of course I’m here. And I’m still helping with the holiday pageant.” She smiled again, but this time it took a little effort. “You’re not getting rid of me completely.”
“I don’t want to.” He stared into her eyes. “Rina, I...”
She was pretty sure he was going to tell her he was sorry or suggest they could go back to what they’d been doing before. Neither of which she wanted to hear.
“What are you favorite Christmas memories?” she asked.
He hesitated as if not sure he was willing to go with the obvious change in subject, then he shrugged. “Things were good when I was younger, but after my mom remarried, they went downhill. My stepdad wasn’t a bad man, but he was strict and we didn’t get along. I spent one Christmas in juvenile detention.”
He held up a hand, as if offering an oath. “I did. I’d been messing around with some guys and we set a shed on fire. It was stupid. The whole neighborhood could have gone up in flames. Instead of sending me away, the judge sentenced me to a hundred hours of community service. I was fifteen and it seemed like a lifetime of punishment.”
Rina had never heard about his early past. “I can’t believe you were that kind of kid.”
He smiled. “I turned out okay in the end. That community service changed my life. I got assigned to the local animal shelter. I worked ten hours a week, for ten weeks and by the time I was done, I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. My stepfather had convinced my mother to send me to boarding school. Rather than fight it, I asked them to pick one specializing in science and math so I could get into a good college. I graduated with honors, got a scholarship and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“Don’t be. There are a lot of kids who suffered a whole lot more than I did. I acted like an idiot and I was punished. What I’m pleased with is that I learned from my mistake and turned things around.”
“Your mom must be proud.”
“She is and so’s my stepdad. We get along now.”
“They live in Florida, right?”
He nodded. “We’re going to visit them over spring break. You should come with us.” He stiffened. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
She ignored the sudden ache in her chest. “No problem. I’m sure you two will have a great time. You can go to Disney World.”
“Kaitlyn has already started planning what rides we’ll go on first.” He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and looked at her. “Rina, I can’t go there.”
She knew he didn’t mean Florida. “You’ve explained that.”
“No, I haven’t. I want you to understand. My wife left. There was no warning. Kaitlyn was two weeks old when she packed her bags and said she was leaving. Said she didn’t want to be a mother or married to me. I didn’t see it coming.” He drew in a breath. “I won’t go through that again.”
“Yes. I don’t want the uncertainty. Friends are different. You can depend on a friend.”
“Meaning you won’t trust another woman? If you care about someone, she could leave?”
He shifted uncomfortably. “It’s more complicated than that.”
She wondered if that was true. Was Cameron’s entire problem that he was unwilling to take a chance on being hurt again? She was torn between knocking some sense into him and reacting with compassion. She decided that the latter would speak more highly of her character.
“You need to take a chance. If not on me, then on someone. You can’t let one selfish, uncaring person scar you for the rest of your life.” She stepped closer. “There’s more on the line than your heart. Kaitlyn is going to learn about romantic love from what she sees you doing. If you’re afraid to trust, that’s what you’re teaching her.”
“She has other role models. Movies. Books. You.”
Rina wasn’t sure falling for a guy who was unwilling to trust again was something she wanted to pass on to an eight-year-old girl she cared about.
“You’re her father. You are the most important person in her world. She’ll do what you do.”
CAMERON WAS STARTING to feel like the antihero in a bad TV show. He would swear his entire staff was glaring at him behind his back. As he’d yet to catch anyone actually glaring, he knew he was in danger of becoming paranoid. Which would not be his best trait.
It was Rina’s fault, he grumbled to himself as he carefully checked the sleeping dog on the operating table. The six-month-old Lab-border collie mix belonged to Max Thurman, the guy who owned K9Rx Therapy Dogs. The dog had been spayed right on time and would later continue her training to be a therapy dog. As he touched her shoulder, she stirred slightly, coming out of the anesthesia.
Jesse noted her vital signs. “She seems to be doing well,” she said. “I’ll stay with her until she’s ready to be moved.”
Cameron glanced at the woman, checking for hidden meaning behind her words. He knew Jesse and Rina were friends. Rina was friends with everyone around her, and that made him the bad guy in what was happening, which brought him right back to the paranoia that everyone was glaring at him.
The downside to small-town life, he thought as he gave the dog one last pat.
“Let me know if there are any problems,” he said. “I’ll be in my office.” Where he would update the dog’s file and scan the list of appointments he had for the afternoon.
As he walked down the hallway, he instinctively paused outside the grooming area. Rina was wielding clippers with the skill of an artist, trimming a small poodle’s feet. She carried on a conversation with the animal as she worked, her voice low and soothing. He was familiar with that voice. He’d heard it when he’d had the flu and Rina had practically moved in to take care of both him and Kaitlyn.
He shook off the memory and continued toward his office. On the main hallway wall were hundreds of pictures of pets, donated by their happy owners. Rina had been the one to suggest the picture wall and it had grown. More than one family brought in a new picture every visit to add to the collection.