the good girl of quaint Redwood Ridge, Oregon, and being permanently
put in the friend zone has left her dating life stagnant. With no
prospects in sight, she clings to her friends and resolves to not let
loneliness drag her under. So when the town Battleaxes set their
matchmaking sights on her, she figures it can’t hurt. Yet the guy
they think is perfect for her just happens to be not only her boss at
the veterinarian clinic, but her best friend. Sure, Flynn O’Grady is
attractive and the nicest guy around, but going there with him would
topple both of their carefully constructed worlds and there would be
no going back. Even if he is starting to make her girly parts zing.
already felt like an outsider most of his life. Aside from his
brothers, Gabby is about the only person who’s gone out of her way to
treat him as more than a handicap. Which is exactly why he’s banked
his secret attraction for his sweet, beautiful vet tech. Except his
meddling family is trying to play Cupid and ruin the best thing to
ever happen to him. Without Gabby, his work as a veterinarian, never
mind his personal life, wouldn’t flow. Determined to ignore the
antics, he’s secure in the knowledge she’s not interested in him
romantically. But then a kiss changes everything . . . and he’s
wondering if taking the ultimate shot at love might be worth the
Gabby Cosette smoothed her hand down the simple baby blue sundress she meticulously picked out for this evening and tried not to look too eager. Or throw up. That wouldn’t do either.
From a back booth, she glanced around the only Italian restaurant in Redwood Ridge, comforted by the fact it was still early yet for the dinner rush. The place was a good choice. Right? Not as casual as Shooters—the bar she and her friends frequented—but not as formal as one of the seafood restaurants that dotted their Oregon coastal town. A step above grabbing coffee or a beer, yet it didn’t scream desperation.
Was a booth in the back too obvious? Had she overdone it with her makeup? Maybe she should’ve put her hair up instead of down?
No, no. She went for light and natural on purpose. The patrons of Redwood Ridge had known her all her life. It wasn’t far out of the realm of ordinary for her to wear a dress and light cosmetics. She was being a basket case.
It’s just… Well, she hadn’t had a date in a year. A year!
To calm her nerves, she drew in a deep breath and focused on the red checkered tablecloth. A votive candle flickered on the windowsill to her right, the flame reflecting off the tinted glass. The parking lot stretched beyond, where her date’s car was not in one of the available spots.
It was silly to get this worked up over a first date, especially with Tom.
She’d gone to elementary and high school with him. His parents still lived down the street from hers. Strange how he’d never shown any interest in her romantically, yet out of the blue, he’d asked her out this week.
Then again, most everyone in town viewed her as the sweet Cosette girl, everyone’s friend. Thus the no date in a year. It was hard to get a guy to think about kissing her, never mind imagining her naked, when she had platonic all but tattooed on her forehead.
The waitress strolled over in her apron, holding a notepad in her hand.
“Are you waiting on someone, sweetie pie?”
“Yes.” She smiled and grabbed her cell on the table. Tom was five minutes late. “He should be here any minute.”
“Ooh. Is it a date?” Mavis planted a hand on her plump waist and grinned, the wrinkles around her eyes growing to crevices. Gabby wasn’t sure how old Mavis was, no one really knew, but she never seemed to age past the state from when Gabby was a child.
Gabby opened her mouth to answer, but Tom strode toward her, weaving around tables and plopping in the seat across the booth.
“Couldn’t find ya at the bar. I wasn’t expecting a table.”
It was still early, and Le Italy didn’t get that crowded even on a Friday night. How hard could it possibly have been to locate her? “Give us a sec,”she told Mavis and waited for her to step away.
Tom had blond hair too short for her preference and a thin mouth. His unremarkable brown eyes darted around the restaurant and back to her. He made no attempt to apologize for being late, and it appeared as if he’d just come from work. His jeans and T-shirt were paint-splattered. The hazard of working for his dad’s commercial painting and roofing company.
“Thanks for meeting me.” He took off his ball cap and scratched his head.
Why did that sound un-date-like? “Um…sure thing. How’s work going?”
Her gaze dipped to his hands, no better off than his clothes. Maybe she should’ve picked Shooters after all.
Something felt very, very off as her belly twisted. Not with nerves this time. Confused, Gabby’s mind scrolled through their conversation from earlier in the week when he’d brought his dog into the vet clinic where she worked. As he was checking out, he’d anxiously spun around to face
her and asked if she could meet him.
“Good. Work’s good.” He put his hat back on and glanced outside.
“Getting to be warmer out, so the jobs are picking up.” Perhaps he was just nervous, too. Her tension drained a degree.
Mavis returned and asked for a drink order.
Tom lifted his hand to wave her off. “Nothing for me, thanks. I can’t stay long. Got a poker game with the guys tonight. I need to shower before they show up.”
The forced smile Gabby had plastered on her face began to wilt like her mom’s petunias in August. What did he mean he couldn’t stay long? And why would he ask her out and schedule a card game on the same night?
Plus, he could shower for his friends, but not her?
Mavis divided her gaze between them, a mix of bewilderment and irritation lifting her brows. She tapped her pen to her pad as the silence hung. “Can I get you something?” She focused on Gabby, her tone indicating she should order something.
“I’ll have a sweet tea. Thank you.” When the waitress walked away, Gabby looked at Tom. He’d thrown his arm over the back of the booth and had stretched his legs out. The aroma of Eau de Paint Thinner wafted across the table. “So…?”
“Right, right.” Tom leaned forward and crossed his arms. “I appreciate you letting me do this in person.”
She stilled. “Do what?” Because she was definitely getting the this-is-not-a-date vibe now.
A warring shift in contradiction took over her body. Everything inside grew rapidly chilly while her skin heated in what she hoped wasn’t a blush. Her pale complexion always gave away her emotions and she hated that more than she’d hated freshman algebra. Math was evil.
He let out a tense laugh, which sounded more like a guffaw, and drew several heads from other diners. “Not exactly a conversation you want to have over the phone or somethin’, ya know?”
No. She didn’t know. “Maybe if you just tell me?”
He played with the parmesan shaker, not meeting her gaze. “Well, the whole town’s buzzing about Rachel and Jeff’s split.”
She frowned, not connecting the dots on his crazy pattern. Her older sister had only dated Jeff for a few weeks which, per Rachel standards, might as well have been marriage. Rachel liked to keep her options—and legs—open.
Guilt immediately consumed her for the crass thought, but it didn’t make it any less true. She and Rachel couldn’t be any more different. Rachel was aloof and sexy. Gabby was the girl next door. Men desired Rachel. The only thing they desired from Gabby was a shoulder to cry on after her sister shot them down.
She twirled a strand of hair around her finger to keep from fidgeting. “I don’t understand what Rachel and Jeff have to do with…” Unable to finish the sentence—because she had no idea anymore what “this” was—she waved her hand between them.
“Well,” he said in an aw-shucks kind of way that made her want to grind her teeth, “now that Rachel’s available, I thought maybe you could put in a good word for me?”
everything around her and there’s always a book playing out in her
head. No one who knows her bats an eyelash when she talks to herself,
and no one is safe from becoming her next fictional character. She is
a Catherine Award-Winner, Readers Choice Finalist, Holt Medallion
Finalist, and earned one of the 10 Best Reads by USA Today’s HEA. She
is also a Romance Writers of America member. Her interests include:
sappy movies, MLB, NFL, driving others insane, and sleeping when she
can. She is a closet caffeine junkie and chocoholic, but don’t tell
anyone. She resides in Wisconsin with her husband, three sons, and
two dogs. Most of her family lives in the Carolinas, so she spends a
lot of time there as well.
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