Authors: Susan Mallery
The bulletin board in the waiting area had a flyer for the adoption event coming up next weekend. Something else Rina was involved with. In his office, he skirted around a planter full of “kitty grass” Rina insisted they keep for their overnight feline guests.
She was everywhere, and he’d never noticed that before. When he’d first arrived in Fool’s Gold, she’d been the one who had given him the list of where to shop and how to avoid trouble with the Gionni sisters by making sure he and Kaitlyn alternated between their hair salons. Rina had chided him into joining the Chamber of Commerce and signed him up to speak on taking care of pets at the local elementary schools. She’d taught his daughter to skate, had baked her a birthday cake and carefully curled her hair for the first day of school.
When Rina disappeared from his life, he would lose far more than simply a babysitter or even a friend. A part of him wanted to be angry at her for changing the rules, but another part of him understood why she wanted more than she had.
Which made him wonder, when she walked away, what would
She said she loved him and he believed her. But, thinking about all she’d done for him and how little he’d done for her, he couldn’t help but wonder why. He’d never consciously gone out of his way to be kind. She was someone he liked and enjoyed spending time with. When she’d needed a new-to-her car, he’d helped her pick out the one that suited her needs best and then had given her advice on negotiating. He’d fixed a few things in her apartment. She had a crazy phobia about the dentist, so he literally held her hand during her twice-yearly cleaning. But that’s what friends did for each other. It wasn’t love.
He crossed to the window. While he paid her to take care of his daughter, he didn’t pay her to care. That she had given freely.
The holiday pageant was a celebration of cultures and traditions. The translation of that statement was that it challenged the parents of grade-school-aged children with costume design and construction worthy of Broadway.
Rina had spent nearly a month on Kaitlyn’s Christmas princess costume, wanting the girl to be thrilled with the results. The hours of sewing had produced a fairy-tale confection in deep red with ruffles and lace and a few beads thrown in for good measure.
Now Rina carefully removed the hot rollers from Kaitlyn’s dark hair and finger-combed the ringlets. The girl stayed completely still, as if willing the transformation.
“This would be better if we had some cartoon forest animals,” Rina joked, separating a few curls, then reaching for her can of hairspray. “Okay, deep breath.”
Kaitlyn obligingly took a breath and held it. At the same time, she put her hands over her face. Rina carefully sprayed the curls into place, made a few last-minute adjustments, sprayed again, and then announced, “Got it.”
Kaitlyn lowered her hands to her side. “How do I look?” she asked.
Rina studied the girl, taking in the green eyes so like her father’s and the flush on her cheeks. She was lovely, the structure of her face already hinting at the beauty she would be as she grew up.
An ache began in Rina’s chest, the knowledge that she would miss so much about Kaitlyn’s daily life.
“Almost perfect,” Rina told her. “There’s just one thing missing.” She reached up for the small diamond heart pendant she always wore. The one her mother had given her for her sixteenth birthday.
After unfastening the pendant, she placed the chain around Kaitlyn’s neck. “I think you should wear this tonight. Because every princess needs to sparkle.”
Kaitlyn touched the heart, then threw her arms around Rina’s neck. “I love you so much.”
“I love you, too. Always. Remember that. Whatever happens, I’ll be there for you.”
Kaitlyn straightened and looked her in the eyes. “I know.”
Rina made her way to the front of the auditorium and searched for Cameron. He stood up and waved her over. On cue, her heartbeat increased and her whole body longed for him. She’d heard that falling in love was the best thing that could happen to anyone. She was sure that was true for some, but from her perspective, being in love sucked big-time.
She went around the back of the room and came down the center aisle. She knew most of the people in the auditorium and found her progress slowed by greetings and conversation.
“I’ve got my eye on that calico cat,” Edie Carberry told her. “You make sure you let me know if anyone else seems interested.”
“I will,” Rina said, pausing to admire the older woman’s holiday-themed jogging suit. Both the pants and jacket were green velour and there was a sequined poinsettia on the front by the zipper.
A mom with two kids in the pageant stopped her to ask about a border collie mix and Alice Barns, the police chief, spoke wistfully about a small gray kitten.
“With my boys so busy with their own lives, I could use a little furry something,” Alice said. “My husband shocked me the other day when he said he wouldn’t mind a cat. Coming from him, that’s practically an advertising campaign.”
Rina finally made her way to the row where Cameron waited and settled into her seat.
“I think the holiday adoption is going to be a success,” she said. “I was worried it was a dumb idea, but I’m getting plenty of people interested. Now if only they show up and take the pets they say they’re interested in.”
She braced herself, then glanced at him. His steady gaze locked with hers, making her feel warm inside. He’d always had the ability to make her believe she was safe around him. Too bad that had turned out not to be the truth.
“You can’t know that for sure,” she told him.
“Yes, I can. This is Fool’s Gold and the people here take care of their own.”
“Do you mean me or the pets?”
The lights dimmed before she could respond.
The production had the usual mishaps. A couple of the kindergarteners were frightened by the bright lights and began to cry. A boy in Kaitlyn’s class knocked over a tree and about half the kids forgot their lines. But Cameron didn’t care about that. As he watched the skits and listened to the songs, he was once again grateful that he’d decided to move to Fool’s Gold.
Kaitlyn looked like the fairy princesses she adored and he knew Rina was the reason. He’d seen the dress in pieces, but not since it had been assembled and it was everything a little girl could want.
“You didn’t have to do that,” he whispered, leaning toward Rina. “I never meant for you to spend so much time on her costume.”
“I wanted to.”
In the dark, it was difficult to read her expression, but he could inhale the sweet scent of her body and feel the heat that tempted him.
For a second, he allowed himself to wonder what it would be like if he permitted himself to give in. To share her feelings and to take what she offered. To touch her and taste her, to let her the rest of the way into his life.
He couldn’t risk that, but maybe he could keep the part of her that mattered to him most.
She turned to him. “What?” she asked in a whisper.
“Later,” he promised.
After the program had ended, everyone stood up and collected their coats.
“They’re serving the kids cupcakes and punch before releasing them back to their families,” Rina said with a grin. “Because they’re not already wound up from their performances, right? The teachers want to seal the deal with a little sugar rush?”
Cameron knew he should laugh or at least smile, but he couldn’t. He grabbed her hand and pulled her to the middle of the rapidly emptying row.
“We need you,” he said urgently. “Kaitlyn and I. We’re friends. You said it yourself. Don’t go. We can keep things the way they were.”
The light slowly faded from her blue eyes. Her mouth straightened.
“You mean give up what I want because having me around is convenient? What do I get out of it, Cameron? Aside from a check every week? A family? Someone to love who loves me back? You want the best of what I have without risk. Without having to share yourself. That’s not going to happen. You can buy childcare, but you can’t buy me. Not anymore.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. You can still have a life. Date.”
She flinched. “Right. Because seeing me with another man wouldn’t bother you at all. Don’t you understand that’s the best reason for me to leave?”
They were supposed to get Kaitlyn together, to go home and celebrate with popcorn. Put up the last of the decorations. But Rina drew back.
“I’m going to tell Kaitlyn I have to go.”
Cameron reached for her, but she was too far away. “Wait.”
“No. I’m done waiting. I’m moving on.”
“WHY CAN’T RINA get me ready for school?” Kaitlyn asked, the following Thursday morning.
Cameron carefully brushed his daughter’s hair. “She’s busy with the pet adoption this coming Saturday and she has a lot to do.”
He knew Rina was avoiding him, but he wasn’t going to say that. Whatever was going on between him and Rina had nothing to do with Kaitlyn.
“We haven’t talked about what we’re getting her for Christmas,” his daughter informed him. “I don’t want to get her a sweater. Rina loves us. We need to give her a present that says we love her, too.”
There was a conversation he didn’t want to have, he thought grimly. “Love is complicated,” he began, but his daughter shook her head.
“It’s not. It’s simple. Love is when we care more about somebody else than we do ourselves. It’s like with Mommy. She didn’t love us and that’s why she left. Because if she’d loved us, she would have wanted to stay. People who love you want to be with you. And we want the people we love to always be around.”
He put down the brush and turned his daughter so she faced him.
“I’m sorry about your mother.”
“I know, but it’s not your fault.” She wrinkled her nose. “Sometimes I get sad about her leaving, but mostly I don’t think about it.” She beamed at him. “You shouldn’t either because we have Rina.” Her eyes widened. “I know! Make Rina your girlfriend. Then she would be real instead of an internet girlfriend.”
He stared at his daughter, not sure where to start. “I’m not looking for an internet girlfriend.”
“It was a bad idea.”
“What about Rina? We already love each other.”
“It just is.”
She sighed and mumbled something that sounded a lot like “No, it’s not,” but he let the comment go. This wasn’t a fight he could win.
Kaitlyn turned her back so he could start on her braid. “Rina’s pretty.”
“Yes, she is.”
“She makes our favorite dinners a lot and we laugh together.”
“You liked kissing her.”
That truth kicked him in the gut. He had liked kissing her. A lot, as his daughter would say. But he couldn’t get involved with Rina that way.
“Kaitlyn...” he began.
She sighed. “I’ll be quiet now.”
Cameron went through a busy morning of appointments. Simon Bradley, a local surgeon, brought in CeCe for her quarterly checkup. These days the small toy poodle was no longer a full-time therapy dog, having been adopted by Simon and his fiancée.
Cameron always enjoyed watching a big, powerful man reduced to cooing over a tiny dog. Not that he would say that to Simon. As CeCe still did some work at the hospital, working with children who had burns, she had to be checked more often to make sure she wasn’t carrying any parasites or had the beginnings of an infection.
“You know Rina’s not in today,” Cameron said as he finished checking CeCe’s heart. Usually the poodle was left in the salon for a grooming on her check-up days.
“I know. She told me when she called.”
“Rina called you?”
Simon nodded. “To switch appointment days. She mentioned she’s relocating her business. That she needs more room to expand.”
Cameron nodded. That was the story she’d come up with. He knew she’d decided on the almost-truth to protect Kaitlyn as much as him. Announcing to the world she was forced to move because the man she loved was too stupid or selfish to love her back wouldn’t play well. At least not for him. Which she wouldn’t want.
He swore under his breath. Why did she have to be so damned good?
“What?” Simon asked anxiously. “Is everything okay with CeCe?”
“Yes. Sorry.” Cameron straightened. “She’s fine. It’s something else. Woman trouble.”
“I know what that feels like,” Simon admitted with a grin. “Although in my case, it was all my fault.”
The grin faded. “Montana put her heart on the line and I walked away. Or tried to. I told myself not being in a relationship was easier than risking losing it. Because then I was in control.” He shook his head. “What a crock. There’s no control when it comes to the heart. I hate to think about how pathetic I sounded, trying to be brave when I was really terrified. I could have lost everything. For what it’s worth, if she’s half as amazing as Montana, you should suck it up, apologize for what you did wrong and beg her to take you back.”
“Good advice,” Simon corrected.